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We All Need to be Bundled Up in the Snow, But Culture Impacts How We Think About It

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 11, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Can climate change skeptics get a warm glow from waste-deep snow?

A New York Times story by John Broder reports that Senator James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, a prominent naysayer on the science of climate change, celebrated the record snowfall in Washington DC by building a six foot tall igloo on Capitol Hill. He used a cardboard sign to label it "Al Gore's New Home. He's not the only gleeful skeptic. A Washington Times editorial "Global Warming Snow Job" declares "Record snowfall illustrates the obvious: The global warming fraud is without equal in modern science."
Dr. Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who writes the WeatherUnderground blog, reminds us that climate is measured in decades and centuries, not months and seasons, so single events don't signify long term changes. But he also reminds us that most climate scientists say extreme weather is consistent with a warmer earth, and warming has been measured over long periods. A Bloomberg News story quotes Matt Rogers of Commodity Weather Group as explaining that weak El Ninos produces cold, snowy winters in the Northeast.. And the federal Climate Impact Report cites rising ocean temperatures and says documented warming increases likelihood of colder winters in the Northeast, more drought in the Southwest and more major Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Why do different people reach such different conclusions about scientific information?

"Fixing the Communications Failure", an article by Dan Kahan in the January 21 issue of Nature, offers insights on why people believe what they do. He says polarization aboutclimate change and polarization on such highly charged social issues as abortion, same sex marriage and school prayer, arise from what he terms cultural cognition. Cultural cognition, he writes, "refers to influence of group values-ones relating to equality and authority, individualism and community-on risk perception and related beliefs."

Kahan and scientific colleagues Donald Braman at George Washington Law School, Geoffrey Cohen at Stanford University, John Gastil at the University of Washington in Seattle and Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon have studied the mental processes behind cultural cognition. Their research suggests, for instance, people with individualistic values and those who accept hierarchies and respect authority, tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risk from global warming because that evidence could lead to restricting industry and commerce, which they admire. They also resist directives from government. People who have more egalitarian and "communitarian " values tend to be suspicious of industry as a source of social disparities, and more receptive to the idea that its activities should be regulated. They also tend to think government's responsibility includes protecting people from harm.

Listen to a National Science Foundation interview in which Dr. Kahan with talks about how these views influence a person's interpretations of the risks inherent in many scientific areas.

How can scientists present information without getting caught in culture wars? Professor Kahan says people are more open minded when information could support, rather than threaten, their values. For instance, he writes, an individualist who dislikes the idea of constraining industry might be receptive to a climate change response that included geo-engineering. An egalitarian who is suspicious about the risks of nanotechnology might be more receptive if there were emphasis on the role nanotechnology could play in environmental protection. People also tend to be more open minded when they receive information from those who seem to have similar values, he writes, so scientific information presented by diverse groups of experts may have a better chance of being received thoughtfully by broader audiences. Read his essay here.

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