Health communicators need to be able to handle… political issues skilfully and they need the training and tools to do so. Otherwise, their health messages run the risk of being ignored in a storm of political outrage. (Abraham 2009)
Prof Dan Kahan at the Yale Cultural Cognition project has been involved in work on cultural influences in the public debate about the HPV vaccine. For many the HPV vaccine will save lives and improve health, while providing strong returns for the manufacturers. For others, though, jabs are just risky or even downright dangerous. For yet others, in providing the vaccine to teenagers there is an implicit condoning of promiscuity. Whichever it is, the scientific evidence seems to fuel a political debate. Sales of Gardasil, says the Wall St Journal “have slowed over the past two years, as Merck has encountered difficulty persuading women ages 19 to 26 to get the shot.”
The Cultural Cogniton project is investigating just how people come to their beliefs about scientific evidence.
Matthew Taylor of the RSA sometimes writes about cultural theory and when he does it’s always worth reflecting on. At the very end of 2009 he was looking at the idea of free will:
Faced with a social choice we can do what we want or feels right for us (individualistic impulse), do what the group expects/needs (egalitarian impulse), do what we have been told (hierarchical impulse) or ‘decide’ it’s not worth making a choice (fatalistic impulse). Is it credible and useful to think of the everyday experience of free will as the process of switching between these alternative responses?
The problem with free will is that we only have it until we walk out of the door in the morning and maybe not even that long. Every time we make a choice we are interacting with institutional forces and established practices which have a strong shaping power over our lives.
Let’s say I decide to go to the city by train this morning, but like Frank Sinatra I’m going to do it my way. Although the timetable says the trains leave on the hour, I’m going to catch the one that leaves at twenty past the hour: I’m a free person and can do what I like, no? Continue reading “Do we have free will?”→
Well into the Twentieth Century the slate industry of North Wales was the world’s largest. It roofed the buildings of the world and left a huge scar on the beautiful landscape of what is now the Snowdonia National Park. But that’s not all it left. If you visit Yr Amgueddfa Llechi Cymru – the National Slate Museum – outside the village of Llanberis you can tour the old buildings of the slate quarries, including the infirmary. One of the human legacies of the industry was to bequeath workers, especially slate-splitters, with chronic and fatal respiratory illness from breathing in the slate dust created from dressing the raw material and turning it into usable roof slates. In oral accounts you can hear at the museum workers describe how the air in the slate dressing buildings was thick with dust. On the wall of the infirmary is a row of certificates signed by medical doctors. These documents certify that not only is slate dust not the cause of respiratory illness, it is actually promotes good health. If you ever happen to be visiting North Wales, go and have a look.
My forebears worked in the Dinorwic quarries near Llanberis and so there is a family, if not a personal reason to feel a little affronted by the lie perpetrated by people who could have known and almost certainly did know better. The lie they told on the walls of the infirmary and in their supposedly professional diagnoses condemned many, many people to a slow and painful death. Slate dust was not safe. It was obviously not safe. Anyone who worked in it could have known and did know that. And yet profit was to be made by avoiding and denying the obvious.
These days we like to think health and safety has come a long way. In some ways it certainly has. It’s improved a lot since the time my great great uncle fell and was injured on the quarry face, only to be charged by the company for delaying production. But when I look at the climate change denial industry, I realise in truth we’ve barely moved forward. Continue reading “Warmer is better!”→
John Adams of Imperial College London produced a new preface for the Brazilian translation of his important book Risk. His very interesting analysis of the social construction of risk is strongly informed by Grid-group cultural theory:
“I have been increasingly impressed by the ability of cultural theory to bring a modicum of order and civility to debates about risk. It is not a typology for pigeonholing participants in debates about risk. Occasionally one encounters a pure type, but most of us are too complex and multi faceted to be captured by a simple label. It does however provide a useful framework and vocabulary for describing the attitudes encountered in discussions about the best way to approach an uncertain future. It helps people to introspect about their own biases and prejudices.”
Australian economist Andrew Leigh has entered into public discussion with Noel Pearson about Aboriginal inequality by proposing that randomised trials should be initiated for those educational innovations supposedly aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged groups. He takes his cue from Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who is well known for testing the effectiveness of cash rewards on academic achievement. Provocatively, Leigh has called proponents of the approach ‘the randomistas‘. (You can also hear about randomised education trials).
The rhetoric of the scientific method sounds very sensible. After all, if it works in medicine, why shouldn’t it work in education? Indeed we can go further: since we don’t accept medicine that hasn’t been tested in a randomised trial framework, why should we accept education without similar confirmation of its effectiveness? The point Fryer and now Leigh have been making is that much educational policy is ideologically driven, rather than evidence driven. We need proper evidence and for them, randomisation is the mark of proper evidence.
And maybe I’ll get round to seeing it, although for truly amazing 3d effects I find it cost-effective to hold my hand at arm’s length in front of my face and turn it slowly. Call me old fashioned. I’m holding out for 5d cinema.
Secondly, it seems to indicate something about the ability of some primates to abandon, defect from, or otherwise change their ways of operating when faced with changed material circumstances and/or changed social circumstances.
Stewart Brand (whom, incidentally, we have to thank for the ‘whole earth’ photo at the Fourcultures masthead) wrote an op-ed recently in which he identified four types of climate change talk, based on two scales, scientists-politicians and agreement-disagreement. This produced four poles, not merely two. They are:
denialists (ideological disagreement)
skeptics (scientific disagreement)
warners (scientific agreement)
calamatists (ideological agreement)
This is a very worthwhile attempt at getting some subtlety into the standoff between the naysayers and the yeasayers. But frankly, I think the existing typology of Grid-Group Cultural Theory does a more parsimonious job of this, at the same time as giving us more information about the motives and practices of the proponents and their institutions.
This typology, derived from the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, can be summarised as: