Communicating Scientific Evidence to Someone with a View Contrary to Yours: Respecting Cultural Values

S.W. Pierson

Not accepting your scientific evidence ≠ not appreciating science

As scientists, we like to think the scientific evidence we present will be readily accepted, particularly when it is the consensus or established view. Having worked the past 15 years for a scientific society — six years in the APS Physics Washington Office under the expert guidance of Michael Lubell and Francis Slakey and almost nine years with the American Statistical Association — it is particularly disappointing when the scientific position of such a society isn’t accepted as valid. After all, the position of a science society necessarily represents a balanced view of the science. For years I struggled to grapple with this reticence to accept a scientific society’s position as authoritative. A 2010 paper in Nature magazine — Fixing the Communications Failure by Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School — provided to me by a Capitol Hill staffer helped me to better understand the phenomena and how to try to address it.

In this piece, I will discuss this work of Kahan and his colleagues because I think it is so insightful and — even seven years after its publication — is not as well known as I think it should be. I will also mention some of Kahan’s subsequent work and possible ramifications for scientific societies and scientists on current topics.

Kahan et al. Cultural Cognition Work

Kahan’s central point in his 2010 article is that how people receive scientific information depends upon their cultural values, a process they call cultural cognition. Their work seems to hold over a variety of topics — from the safety of nuclear waste storage and climate change to nanotechnology and vaccines — and is symmetric by cultural group (which I’ll explain more below.) To frame his discussion, Kahan starts his article recapping a 1950’s psychology experiment in which students from separate universities are asked to assess the referee calls of a football game between their two universities. Not surprisingly, how students viewed a controversial call depended to a great extent on whether the call benefitted or hurt their team.

In the context of scientific debates, Kahan and coworkers identify two groups: (i) "People with individualistic values, who prize personal initiative, and those with hierarchical values, who respect authority, tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire"; (ii) "people who subscribe to more egalitarian and communitarian values are suspicious of commerce and industry, which they see as sources of unjust disparity. They are thus more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted."

A key finding of their work is that "groups with opposing values often become more polarized, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information." Yes, you read that correctly: providing scientific evidence contrary to a person’s standing can be counter productive. Before any of us jump too soon to conclusions about being above this phenomenon, Kahan’s group found this to be true not only for the egalitarian/communitarian group when it comes to nuclear waste but also the hierarchical individualistic group when it comes to anthropogenic climate change.

Kahan provides a couple recommendations for how scientists can deal with a limitation of not being able to lead with or even emphasize the science. Building on the work of Stanford Psychologist Geoffrey Cohen, one approach is "to present information in a manner that affirms rather than threatens people’s values." "For instance," Kahan writes, people with individualistic values resist scientific evidence that climate change is a serious threat because they have come to assume that industry-constraining carbon-emission limits are the main solution. They would probably look at the evidence more favourably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness. Similarly, people with an egalitarian outlooks are less likely to reflexively dismiss evidence of the safety of nanotechnology if they are made aware of the part that nanotechnology might play in environmental protection, and not just its usefulness in the manufacture of consumer goods.

Kahan continues, "The second technique for mitigating public conflict over scientific evidence is to make sure that sound information is vouched for by a diverse set of experts."

Implications for Kahan’s work for Scientists and Scientific Societies

The work of Kahan and many others doing science communications research on how people receive scientific information provides many insights that we can use and learn from. An obvious one is not to assume people holding a view contrary to ours do not appreciate science. In retrospect, I saw this firsthand as a guest to a black-tie celebration of a libertarian think tank’s anniversary. The honored guest was Norman Borlaug, the late plant geneticist whose work in bringing high-yield wheat varieties — along with improved agricultural production techniques — vastly improved the food security of countries like India, Mexico, and Pakistan. While praising Borlaug’s scientific advances, the group roasted the scientific work of climate researchers. (For full disclosure, I believe I am more of an egalitarian/communitarian thinker and hold the view of the APS statement "Earth’s Changing Climate", i.e., it "is a critical issue and poses the risk of significant environmental, social and economic disruptions around the globe… multiple lines of evidence indicate that human influences have had an increasingly dominant effect on global climate. The potential consequences of climate change are great and the actions taken over the next few decades will determine human influences on the climate for centuries. ") At the time, I felt the group was trying to have it two ways, praising some scientific work and rejecting other scientific evidence. Looking at the apparent pick-and-choose approach through the lens of Kahan’s work, Borlaug’s scientific accomplishments resonate with the hierarchical individualist themes of technological advances that contribute to commerce and industry—as opposed to restricting it — while addressing aglobal challenge. For climate change, I believe the group saw — and perhaps still do — steps to address climate change as being more restrictive of commerce and industry.

I also value Kahan’s advice to take the approach of affirming — rather than threatening — people’s values when discussing the scientific evidence relevant to issues of the day. Implicit in this I believe is establishing a relationship to learn each other’s values. This will take time but, as Kahan also says in his Nature article, "citizens who hold opposing cultural outlooks are in fact rooting for the same outcome: the health, safety and economic well-being of their society." A December 2015 Washington Post article — Their 1996 clash shaped the gun debate for years. Now they want to reshape it — is a fascinating example of this. The article tells the story of the Arkansas Congressman whose 1996 clash with a Center for Disease Control (CDC) gun violence researcher led to the CDC’s decision to stop its gun-violence research. A few weeks later after their tense encounter, Congressman Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) had his staff invite Dr. Mark Rosenberg into his office to review some data. After meeting with staff, Dr. Rosenberg was invited to speak with the congressman. Saying in the 2015 Post piece that he "knew the value of not letting divisions exist," Congressman Dickey didn’t talk about gun violence research that day. Instead the two talked about their children and other such topics. A friendship ensued and it was only after they became trusted friends that they could talk about gun violence. Sixteen years later, in 2012, they coauthored an op-ed in the Washington Post saying they are "are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners."

The circumstances leading to the Dickey-Rosenberg friendship are quite different than meetings scientists request with Members of Congress or their staff to discuss climate change. We can’t wait for the Member or staffer to ask us about our children but must make the most of their limited time and to get to our point quickly. Nevertheless, I believe such meetings are constructive when their purpose is to start or continue the conversation (preferably with the Member) and to develop rapport and trust. Annually for six years I have accompanied Leonard Smith (London School of Economicsand Pembroke College, Oxford) — who is both a member of the ASA and the APS — into his Republican U.S. Representative’s office to talk about climate science. Through three different staffers and mixed reactions (from skeptical to indifferent) to the discussions of wilderness, residential, commercial, and military areas in the district threatened by climate and/or sea level rise, we were gratified — not to mention pleasantly surprised — when this year they said they’d be willing to consider cosponsoring the "Gibson Resolution", a non-binding House Resolution (H.Res. 424) on environmental stewardship that acknowledges a "changing climate" and it being a "conservative principle to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment."Only an anecdote of a small victory to be sure but it demonstrates the potential of regularly and earnestly engaging and listening to policymakers on topics we may not agree. It also leads one to ask what could be achieved through a more concerted and organized long-term effort to have scientists working to build trusting relationships with their policymakers.

In my lead paragraph I say scientific societies must necessarily present a balanced view of the science of a given topic. I believe this because scientific societies represent scientists holding a broad range of views on a given scientific topic. To take the diverse views of its members into account when developing their position statements, I have only seen societies present a balanced view of the membership of its societies. Further, because it is imperative scientific societies protect their reputations as objective entities, I believe scientific societies tend to be conservative in presenting what they see as the scientific position.

With our unique capability to present a balanced view on a scientific topic, scientific societies have an important role to play in informing policymaking and the public on matters of national importance. The APS is a leader in this regard through its "POPA Reports", the in-depth studies on topics ranging from energy and environment to national security issues from the Panel on Public Affairs (POPA). Indeed, I think the experts assembled for the POPA reports embody Kahan’s second suggestion that sound information be vouched for by a diverse set of experts.

In addition to more societies issuing such reports and perhaps issuing joint reports (the ASA would be pleased to suggest statisticians for future POPA reports), we must educate policymakers and the public about the scientific authority we bring to a topic. Last year I was with representatives of two other scientific bodies in a meeting with a Senate committee staffer that was likely a case of us trying to present a scientific view contrary to the staffer’s position. After our best efforts of presenting the science, her reply was that she had a letter signed by 78 scientists supporting her position. I tried to explain our view represented the middle of a bell-curve of scientific views while her 78 were on one of the extremes but I knew we had lost the day with no trust or rapport on which to go. (Professor Smith and I were also told early in our six annual visits by a congressional staffer that, when it comes to climate change, "we have our experts and you have your experts" reinforcing their appreciation for science but illustrating the large divide on the topic.) I maintain however that it comes back to scientific societies also building and maintaining the trusting relationships I suggested earlier for individual scientists.

By stressing the balanced view that we can present from a bell-curve of scientific judgements, scientific societies can counteract the often slanted view a congressional panel too often presents on a heated topic. With the minority only usually allowed one witness and the majority the rest, it has been my observationthe last couple years that hearings on climate change have not presented a balanced view on climate change, largely due to the majority witnesses being mostly from one of the extremes. While I understand that hearings in non-science committeeswill take more political positions, I believe the science committees have a responsibility to the American people to present a more balanced view on a topic as important as climate change.

While progress on climate change — as characterized by bipartisan recognition of the problem and bipartisan resolve to address it — will beslow and consensus is lacking about how to achieve such progress, I would be happy with the small step of bipartisan acknowledgement that the changing climate is a problem and that humans are a primary cause. Perhaps to achieve or at least gauge such bipartisan agreement, Democrats in recent years have offered "Sense of Congress" amendments saying, in effect, climate change is occurring and humans are the primary driver. During a January, 2015 Senate debate on the Keystone XL pipeline, five Republicans voted to support an amendment saying "climate change is real" and that "human activity significantly contributes to climate change". (As an aside but informative of the political dynamics, two of the five Republican Senators lost their reelection bids in November: Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois and Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.) In the House science committee later that winter, a similar amendment was amended to remove the line about humans being the primary cause and then passed.

I have not followed Kahan’s work closely since his 2010 Nature paper but did see a May 2015 presentation where a theme was, "Don’t make reasoning, free people choose between knowing what’s known and being who they are." Applying this to the "Sense-of-Congress" efforts, it seems like Democrats are trying to force Republicans to choose between knowing what’s known and being true to their constituents. After all, one of the factors identified in the 2010 primary loss of South Carolina’s Republican U.S. Representative Bob Inglis was his acknowledgement that climate change is caused by human activities and poses significant risks. As a thought experiment, what if the Sense of Congress were to read as follows?

It is the sense of Congress that the overwhelming majority of scientists with expertise in climate science agree that —
(1) climate change is occurring; and
(2) human activity significantly contributes to climate change.

By inserting "the overwhelming majority of scientists with expertise in climate science agree that", the languageis no longer asking Members of Congress to say what they believe regarding anthropogenic climate change per se but is asking them to acknowledge where the majority of scientists and scientific societies are regarding anthropogenic climate change.

Whether or not a vote on such a "Sense of Congress" would move the ball forward in some small way I’ll leave to others. Regardless, it’s imperative we listen to what science communication researchers are telling us and merely impose our scientific knowledge upon policymakers and the public.

Steve W. Pierson

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.