Engineers might assume that cold hard facts are enough to settle even the thorniest debates about a technology’s merits. But amateur skeptics hold a vast array of innovations in contempt, including nanotechnologies, stem-cell treatments, vaccines, genetically modified crops, drones, firearms, and nuclear energy. Even commonplace products are subject to scorn.
A recent study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University found that people with conservative political leanings are less likely to purchase pricier energy-efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs labeled as environmentally friendly. Participants that identified most strongly with conservative parties were least likely to buy the labeled bulbs. They also place the least value on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions to protect the environment.
It seems that debates about the human impact on climate change are politically polarizing enough to affect how people shop, though more conservatives than ever (52%) believe in climate change. The problem is that many organizations with climate-change messages subscribe to what social scientists call the information deficit model, which attributes public skepticism about scientific discoveries and technologies to a basic lack of information. The idea is that if the general public gets adequate data from the scientific community about a topic, it will form logical opinions.
Social scientists know better. Personal experience, religion, and values often trump empirical data when people come to conclusions about a topic. Here, people use what’s called motivated reasoning and seek out information that corroborates what they already believe or value. And green-technology boosters go wrong because they usually frame the idea of curbing carbon emissions to appeal to liberals, who tend to value community and have egalitarian views.
According to Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale University, such arguments don’t universally work because conservatives tend to value entirely different things — namely, individualism and a hierarchal organization for society. For example, conservatives tend to believe that individuals should work to ensure their own prosperity, so appeals that “we can all do our part” to save the environment don’t compute.
In a paper published earlier this year, Kahan argues that diversified communications can keep all segments of the public informed on the facts by accommodating motivated reasoning. He proposes that organizations tasked with disseminating scientific information engage communication researchers to survey intended audiences and then scientifically tailor messages to appeal to the audience’s values and specific concerns.
Strangely enough, that approach sounds a bit like something else that’s exacerbated antiscience attitudes — namely, increasingly subjective media outlets designed to engage targeted audiences. That’s where most people get the bulk of their science-related information right now.
Sept. 24, 2013 — Editor's note: In a related story, the magazine and online science news outlet Popular Science has just shut off their websites' commenting functions. As their online content director Suzanne LaBarre explains:
A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television.
It's a sad day for science journalism.