Natural Symbols and the new science of political manipulation

Liberal academics writing about the more conservative beliefs of the populace seldom amounts to more than a venting of hostility–the emotional gratification of imputing every kind of vice and stupidity onto one’s enemies.  The best work comes from those working on the science of manipulating the populace.  Although done to assist the liberal elite, because it is interested in results, it must attempt to be accurate.  Hence the more perceptive works of Jonathan Haidt and now Dan Kahan.  I was interested in the latter’s work on getting people to obey climate scientists without triggering the partisan modules in their brains because of the use he made of Mary Douglas’ worldview/society taxonomy.  I reviewed her impressive but mostly-forgotten Natural Symbols here, and I’m glad to see these ideas getting more attention.

Braman also sent Kahan the work of Mary Douglas, an anthropologist who, several decades earlier, had developed a cultural theory of risk assessment. Social norms, above all else, informed how people judged risks, she said. The public divided along two spectra: one measuring their support of social structure, running from egalitarian to hierarchical; the other, their devotion to individualism or communitarianism. The scales combined for four essential “worldviews.”

Kahan looked past controversy over Douglas’s work—in particular, a 1982 book she co-wrote that attacked environmentalists (whom she saw as extremely egalitarian and communitarian, and motivated by contempt for industrial society)—and saw a powerful tool. He had already dipped into psychological research showing how we engage in “motivated reasoning,” shaping facts around our beliefs, especially in situations that threaten our identities. Perhaps the worldviews described by Douglas were shaping those biases and causing conflict? A believer in free markets might balk at climate change, given the predominant warming narrative aimed at curbing economic growth; an egalitarian-communitarian, meanwhile, would find the centralized authority demanded by nuclear power unbearable.

The big conclusion is that it’s easier to convince people to do something if you can frame it in a way that you’re not attacking their general worldview.  Put that way, it doesn’t sound like such a discovery.  But worldview attack is the reason liberals latch onto issues.  They only care about climate change because it’s somehow become a stick to beat their enemies with.  I tend to think that, being a fundamentally empirical matter, global warming positions didn’t have to become attached to ideologies, but there were many people, including I think many climate scientists, who wanted them to be.

In general, I’m not sure whether Kahan’s science of manipulation will be a good or a bad thing.  If ideology is irrelevant to an issue (as I think response to global warming is), it’s a benefit to us all if he helps politicians to bypass it.  Some “science” issues–embryonic stem cell extraction being one alluded to in the article–are really ethics issues, and work to keep them “technical” and “practical” will really mean inventing obfuscatory language to conceal the fundamental ethical problem.  From what I’ve read, I don’t trust Kahan and his collaborators to have the philosophical acumen to tell the one type of “science debate” from the other.

5 Responses

  1. Does it explain why the worldview of conservatives includes endless economic growth but not preservation of the people?

  2. I tend to think that, being a fundamentally empirical matter, global warming positions didn’t have to become attached to ideologies, but there were many people, including I think many climate scientists, who wanted them to be.

    Well, if man-made climate catastrophe is real this implies a need to get control of the people who are causing it, as a matter of self-defense.

    If good fences can make good neighbors without calamitous externalities that affect everyone, that implies a certain approach to politics. If externalities that affect everyone dominate the use of property and sovereign territories, good fences are not possible and closed borders are pointless. If ‘internalities’ dominate then we could theoretically construct a vast ghetto, call it (say) “Sodom”, and let the liberals all live there in ‘peace’ (or whatever they wanted to call the nightmare which follows from their world view) and leave us the Hell alone. Reasonable and sane people could live in some other ghetto in the ‘patchwork’. If ‘externalities’ dominate then those kinds of proposals are ludicrous fantasy.

    Sure, facts are facts and truth is truth, but almost all truths have further implications about how we ought to live.

  3. Progressivism is about the accumulation of power by people with advanced degrees from elite schools. Kahan’s techniques will surely be embraced by these people as a useful tool for doing so.

  4. SSC covers this excellently, check IV here:

    Scott is a bit charitable here – he seems to think certain objective, rational debates only deteriorate into politicization instead of being worldview-attacking weapons to begin with.

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