It matters who presents the message

unsafe area

Who would you trust to tell you what the risks are?

Research from the Cultural Cognition project suggests the cultural identity of the presenter matters significantly to the public reception of a particular message about risk. In other words, we need our experts to be our experts, not the other side’s experts.

It follows from this that one way of reducing the polarization of debates on risk may be to provide a variety of views on an issue from within a particular cultural bias. Two examples of this in practice are presented below, one quite successful, the other less so.

First, the standard view of climate change from the political right is that a) it isn’t significant and b) if it is, private enterprise will fix it through free markets and price mechanisms, provided government regulation doesn’t contribute to market failure. But there are several personalities with impeccable right-wing credentials who don’t toe this line. John Gummer, aka Lord Deben, was Chairman of the UK’s Conservative Party in the Margaret Thatcher years and subsequently Environment Minister and has been touring the world promoting conservative responses to climate change that acknowledge its existence and seek to do something about it. He routinely critiques the ‘it’s a left-wing plot’ line whilst reminding his audiences that if climate change science was good enough for Margaret Thatcher it should be good enough for the Right as a whole.

Second, the standard environmental activist view of nuclear power is “No thanks!” but journalist George Monbiot has proposed that a knee jerk reaction to the Japan meltdown will result in worse outcomes for climate change, precisely to the extent that it results in reductions in atomic energy capacity. He’s probably right about this. Coal kills a lot more people than nuclear, but it does so stealthily through particulates etc rather than by high profile disasters. Nevertheless he’s been pretty exhaustively vilified by his erstwhile constituency, who still want to say “No thanks!”

It must be hard work for these opinion shapers to stand out from their home crowd. This leads to the suggestion that one of the contributing factors to polarization may be polarization itself. For experts and spokespeople cultural bias is a vicious circle. The pay-off for polarizing the debate is quite strong: large niche audience, adulation, employment, tenure, publication deals etc. Meanwhile the pay-off for de-polarizing the debate is quite weak: being ignored, vilification, lack of obvious employment, the eschewing of clear niches etc.

So here’s my question: how can they be rewarded, those brave souls who refuse to toe the party line? Are there good examples of this working in practice?

(One possibility is that there’s a rich mine of policy formulation lying just beneath the surface of each cultural bias.)

For an interview with Prof Dan Kahan on this general issue see an article in Discover Magazine.

Image Credit: CC Payton Chung/Flickr

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s