Experts and Cultural Cognition

Dan Kahan‘s blog at the Cultural Cognition Project makes some conjectures about whether experts think in similar ways to non-experts. Specifically he wonders whether experts exhibit the kinds of cultural biases already demonstrated by non-experts. Do experts use cultural cognition?

My observation is that there would need to be care taken to avoid something like the fundamental attribution error. That is to say, being an ‘expert’ in a given field is strongly conditioned by situation. So the very choice of who the experts are may be conditioned by unacknowledged cultural bias. My conjecture is that experts therefore say what their audiences and sponsors expect them to, otherwise they would be unrecognizable as experts. In situations where the message is critiqued, so is the messenger’s status as an expert. In situations where the message is positively received, the messenger’s status as expert is regarded as obvious.

Three possible examples:

Who is an expert in local economic development? Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement, tends to have a strongly Egalitarian outlook on the world. He recently complained that the ‘growth as usual’ mindset of local council officers called into question their competence as expert in their own field. His position is that true economic development experts would take into account peak oil, economic crises and climate change and allow for the possibility that economic growth, as it has been understood, may be a thing of the past.

Second example: Climate science has its experts and it is an open question as to whether the geologist Ian Plimer is one of them. At one level he is not an expert in climate science since that is not his area of professional competence. However, he has written a book on the subject and since he is a ‘climate sceptic’, there are some people who wish to present him as an expert in climate change. His new book for students was launched by a former prime minister of Australia.

The third example is that of US judges, experts in legal deliberation, many of whom are appointed on specifically political grounds. Voters have a sense of the liberal and conservative candidates for office and they vote accordingly. To those of us living in places where the judiciary is appointed on merit rather than elected, this appears strange indeed. After all, what could be less political than judgements concerning the facts?

In these examples the kinds of statements made by ‘experts’ are received not on the basis of whether the person in question actually has qualifications or professional standing, but on whether their words fit with a particular cultural bias. That is to say, each cultural bias already has its own experts, who are brought into the argument in order to cast doubt on the competence of the other side’s supposed expertise.

So before we can identify how experts behave it’s necessary to create a definition of expert that is broadly acceptable across the conflicting cultural solidarities described by Cultural Theory. The three examples given above show that this may be quite difficult.


Making up the facts about climate change?

Climate Change Factors

Upton Sinclair said

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Let’s just try to understand a fairly straightforward question. I don’t mean straightforward as in ‘easy to determine’ , but as in ‘you’d think it might have a definite, clear answer’. Here it is:

How much carbon dioxide do volcanoes emit?

This seems exactly the kind of question we should be able to answer if we want to be able to say anything serious about climate change (see the top left box of the diagram). It also seems to be the kind of thing that scientific observation and measurement ought to be able to help us with.

Furthermore, it would in principle be perfectly reasonable to conclude that we don’t actually have an answer yet because it’s just too hard to measure volcanoes with existing methods and technology. A little humility never hurt anyone.

So here goes with the answer. Continue reading

Still arguing about the facts on climate change?

Geologist Ian Plimer, who has written a book opposing the idea of human-made climate change, has backed out of a debate on the science with journalist George Monbiot.

But wait a minute. Actually, journalist George Monbiot, who has written a book supporting the idea of human-made climate change, has backed out of a debate on the science with geologist Ian Plimer.

Does this mean they’ve both backed down? Or does it mean they’ve both courageously stood their ground?

What’s going on?

From one perspective, Plimer is peddling ‘24 carat bafflegab’. From another, Monbiot is preaching a ‘secular religion’ and is the high priest of global warming.

Who’s right? Surely, when it comes to scientific facts, ‘Truth is truth to the end of reckoning’  (Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act 5 scene i). Why can’t these people just agree? And why can’t we get to the bottom of why they can’t agree? It’s as though they can’t even agree on what the facts are they’re supposed to be disagreeing about. Each seems to operate as though no matter what is said, the other will twist it to their own advantage because they are acting in bad faith.

If these people would take a look at the claims of Grid-group cultural theory, Continue reading

Climate Change: is it a new religion?

Sydney Walk Against Warming 2008
Sydney Walk Against Warming 2008

The Murdoch rearguard action against climate change science just won’t die, although these days it tends to be confined to the opinion section of the newspapers, rather than counting as ‘news’. In today’s Sydney Telegraph, columnist Piers Ackerman gives another outing to his argument that climate change is natural (and, since you ask, probably isn’t happening anyway). He blames the state-run ABC media and the Fairfax press for perpetuating the myth. Which is slightly ironic, since in today’s Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax owned) columnist Miranda Devine writes almost the same article excoriating the ‘church’ of climate change ‘fundamentalists’ and promoting the same climate sceptic, who happens to have a new book out this month, Adelaide University professor Ian Plimer.

Paralleling Devine’s use of religious metaphor, Ackerman sees climate change as a kind of ‘religion’, which is not to be questioned, and has its own orthodoxy and its own high priest in Al Gore.

This is hardly a new line of argument, and it still doesn’t look like dying away any time soon, so what’s going on here?

Continue reading