George Monbiot at the Guardian has finally begun to take account of Cultural Theory as a possible explanation for why people either believe or ‘refuse’ to believe in climate change. He cites an article in Nature by Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project.
Prof Kahan says:
‘we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.’
However, Monbiot claims the cultural biases in CT don’t fit his particular case, since he sees himself as an Egalitarian who has unwillingly been put in the invidious situation of defending scientists against their detractors, many of whom are themselves Egalitarians.
But a closer look at Monbiot’s article reveals that he has in mind an ‘ideal type’ of scientist, who precisely fits the Egalitarian conception of how scientists should behave. There are three key characteristics.
First, Egalitarian scientists should do no evil. Weaponising anthrax is out, as is the development of terminator genes in food crops. A non-Egalitarian argument can be made for both these activities, but Monbiot isn’t interested in that.
Second, Egalitarian scientists should produce freely accessible knowledge. Locking it away in pay-to-access journals isn’t on, and all well-meaning scientists should act together to end the monopolisation of knowledge the journal publishers have created for themselves (actually I think it’s a cartel, but we’ll let that pass).
Third, and most importantly, the kind of scientific knowledge Monbiot as an Egalitarian is especially interested in is what he thinks scientists should be producing impartially: hard evidence of major threats to civilization. A fact, on this view, is something that has the power to bring the group closer together and promote group behaviour. What self-evidently guarantees the veracity of such facts is the classic Egalitarian resort to ‘consensus’.
Taken together, these features of ideal science make it clear that the Egalitarian worldview describes Monbiot’s position to a tee.
He asks how it is possible to persuade people who just don’t want to be persuaded – and has no answer. The answer, from a cultural Theory perspective, is fairly straightforward.
People and institutions with different cultural biases create, fund, support and pay attention to four very different types of evidence. What matters then is to produce and shape a variety of evidence, not only the Egalitarian evidence that Monbiot privileges as the only kind of truth.
…according to law professor Don Braman, that is. NPR has an interview with members of the Cultural Cognition Project, who have been demonstrating experimentally that people’s climate change beliefs are strongly linked to their worldview.
It’s intuitively obvious that our views, opinions and beliefs are linked together a bit like constellations in the night sky, but when it comes to working out what exactly it is that connects them, it’s quite hard to come up with a viable answer. Now it seems the pattern is becoming clearer.
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.
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:
Mike Hulme, author of the splendid Why We Disagree about Climate Change, has written a very measured op-ed about the theft of his emails from the University of East Anglia and the relationship between science and politics in the climate change debate.
Fourcultures has previously written about:
Mike Hulme’s book, Why we Disagree about Climate Change
a critique of the idea that climate change deniers are necessarily acting in bad faith
In his foreword to a recent collection on the social construction of climate change, Nicholas Onuf writes:
‘As a social constructon, climate change is no one thing. Instead it is an ensemble of constitutive processes, yielding an ever changing panoply of agents and insitutions, fixed in place only for the moment.’ Mary E Pettenger (ed) 2007:xv
Yet in the arguments about climate change, the subject of the arguments is often taken as a given. We forget that just as the carbon dioxide emissions are of human origin, so is the very concept.
Now Prof Mike Hulme, founder of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has written a book about climate change as a social, cultural, political, religious and ethical phenomenon,rather than a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’. In doing so he has drawn deeply from the well of Cultural Theory. The book refers repeatedly to the writings of Mary Douglas (especially Douglas and Wildavsky 1984), Michael Thompson (particularly Verweij and Thompson 2006) and numerous other cultural theorists, and has a Foreword by Steve Rayner. The book is much too stimulating and multi-faceted to summarise here, but in terms of policy implications the auther promotes Rayner’s idea of the need for ‘silver buckshot’ rather than ‘silver bullets’, and Verweij and Thompson’s idea of ‘clumsy solutions’ rather than elegant failures.
Why we Disagree about Climate Change is a timely, wide ranging thoughtful and challenging contribution to the climate change debate. I think it will also stand as a highly accessible landmark text of ‘applied Cultural Theory’, much as Christopher Hood’s 1998 book on public management did a decade ago. A review will follow.