Why is the Cultural Cognition Project anti-intellectual?

Scientific debate has a peculiar character: it behaves exactly like regular debate. What’s peculiar is only that some people think it’s different.

You can see this right away because the claims about how science is ‘different’ come from people who intend to use it as a lever.

In regular debate, I explain my views and the other side theirs. I might think he or she may not be convinced, due to ‘deep seated cultural attitudes’, superstition, bias of race, gender and religion. But I don’t dwell in prejudice. It is possible.

In every sphere, the same play of power follows. Prejudice is part of the ground state of the human condition. But it can be suppressed, bypassed, given a different bone to play with, cheated, or even overcome.

The ‘Cultural Cognition Project‘ is run by law professor Dan Kahan. One of its over-riding themes is that people view scientific findings through a cultural lens. They accept or reject findings based on their ‘worldview’, on whether it resonates with their in-group etc.

This is profoundly anti-intellectual. It implies people are mindless victims of emotional undercurrents that operate out of reach of their rational grasp. In Kahan’s approach, the corollary question becomes: ‘since people cannot be reached by reasoning, what forms of salesmanship need to be undertaken to package your findings and fool your audience into buying them?’

Kahan’s game properly belongs in marketing, not science of any sort.



  1. Brad Keyes

    To Kahan’s credit, he doesn’t seem to care which side we choose as long as we make up our minds without undue interference from culturally reflexive tics.

    Kahan hasn’t personally looked into climate science enough to realize how risibly unconvincing the case is for panic. The only way he can understand our sanguine contempt for the whole idea of CAGW, therefore, is to posit the existence of powerful cultural and peer pressure favoring rejection of CAGW. But note that he also points to a “liberal” counterpart of this process: the irrational fear of nuclear technology and GM crops.

    The upshot of this is that Kahan—unlike Lewandowsky and even Lakoff—refuses to write conservatives off as uniquely or abnormally irrational. He sees irrationality everywhere.

    Sure, there’s no getting around the fact that this whole program necessarily denies the rational autonomy of the disputants from square one.

    However, Kahan doesn’t want to *take advantage of* the irrationality he assumes we suffer. On the contrary, he wants to *disarm* or *circumvent it*.

    Finally I need to admit that my confidence in Kahan’s fundamentally good intentions might be a function of private correspondence with him—if all you have to go on is the public flame wars on his blog, I wouldn’t blame you for taking a more cynical view of his program. He’s got a lot of work to do if he wants to gain the skeptical half of the population’s good faith, and I’ve told him as much privately. Look at what happened, for instance, when I used Anthony’s open thread to suggest that my skeptical comrades could view Kahan’s blog as a bridge-building opportunity:


    and (with more success) at Hilary’s:


  2. Brad Keyes

    Oh and for the record, I’m hardly noted for my conservatism; my peer group and social friends aren’t noted for their conservatism; my family is as liberal as they get; thus, as a liberal skeptic of CAGW, I’m more painfully aware than most of the inadequacy of Kahan’s attempt to frame the climate debate in terms of political stereotypes. (Just mentioning this lest my last comment be construed as an apologia for his *theory*. Far from it.)

  3. Shub Niggurath

    Maybe I bashed on Kahan a bit hard, but the point remains. However though, Kahan himself appears to be something different from his project and its thesis. These two are different things, if that makes any sense.

    And the dmk/Kahan thing with Willis E, I was right there in the middle, watching it unfold. Assumed until that point that dmk was Kahan, but the duo started getting a bit wierd so I kept out of further contributions on the thread.

    W.r.t the ‘cultural cognition’ thesis: the core idea is a truism (people have an ideological lens on) seeking empirical support. Why?!

    Look at the platform they chose to study, for example: HPV vaccine acceptance. Why would you assume that people would have no problems thinking about the fact that their girl children are going to grow up and have sex? Why would you expect this topic to not be charged, politically or otherwise, and for parents to make a ‘rational decision’ to prop up their kids for their sex shots? The premise therefore is one where you’ve imbued your subjects with the expectation of hyper-rationality, which they don’t measure up to, which you turn around and blame on their cultural cognitive biases. Vaccines of all types, let alone the sex vaccines, have always encountered bizarre societal reactions right from their inception. To this date, people in Pakistan and pockets in Northern India believe polio vaccines to be population control agents. They murdered health workers believing this to be true. Others in the West believe they cause autism and ask difficult and uncomfortable questions. What needs re-calibration is scientists and researchers expectations of enlightened society, its permanence and the location of its boundaries, rather than an undermining of rationality and autonomy.

    Kahan believes topics like ‘global warming’ are polarized along party lines when ostensibly they needn’t have been, and people could only have looked at the science (as provided by the official channels) and reached conclusions on their basis. But the issue of global warming came to public attention packaged with the politics of the Kyoto Protocol and Al Gore (seeing as it *was* a political topic and not a scientific one in the first place). How then does a researcher expect that people assess risk of global warming on a non-politicized basis, be surprised that they do not, then ‘find out’ the people to be divided along party lines? It is mere fishing for support for your theory where other simpler explanations exist.

    The Left, in this scheme, cannot honestly admit that global warming is its project. Instead, it has to build the mythology that it delved into the science and being more scientifically literate and unclouded as it is, grasped this ‘global warming’ and brought it to attention to the world. It has to bastardize it in this manner so it can follow through with the pretense of adopting its own child. Those who look at this spectacle aren’t to laugh but accept the mantle of being cognitively biased by their culture which has impaired them from rushing to the adoption centre themselves. (And Dan’s researching what these cultural biases are).

  4. Brad Keyes

    Shub, your points are well taken. I also suspect you might be pleasantly surprised by how little Kahan disagrees with you.

    I just want to draw attention to this, though:

    “Instead, it has to build the mythology that it delved into the science and being more scientifically literate and unclouded as it is, grasped this global warming and brought it to attention to the world.”

    Of course, you and I both know that this “Science Comprehension Thesis” is a myth, in the Jim-Franklinian sense of “a lie.”

    But it was Kahan’s research which officially, scientifically dispelled said myth. Surely he deserves some credit, at least, for publishing the data that publicly laid to rest the Science Comprehension Thesis, especially considering that the SCT was his own working hypothesis when he embarked on the study. As I’ve remarked before, such integrity is sadly atypical in the climate-psychology world. It’s not hard to imagine what a used condom like Lewandowsky or Cook would have done with such inconvenient data, is it?

  5. Brad Keyes

    Shub, thanks for your great replies—this is turning into a rewarding thread.

    As uncontroversial and reasonable as the following sentence sounds, I beg to differ with it:

    “Scientific debate has a peculiar character: it behaves exactly like regular debate.”

    My objection (which is, mind you, tangential to the thrust of your post [or should that be perpendicular?]) is that the very concept of “scientific debate” is infelicitous, given that science differs from debating in fundamental ways.

    For one thing, debating is rhetorical—its object is to persuade—unlike science (at least when science is working as it should).

    At the risk of sounding corny, one technology is designed to produce belief, the other knowledge.

    Secondly, and relatedly, debating is a motivated / teleological / conclusion-driven reasoning system par excellence.

    Third, science is radically asymmetrical: the burden of evidence falls exclusively on the “Affirmative” side. The Negative team isn’t even obliged to turn up; it may as well not even exist. (One can only roll one’s eyes at the climate catastrophists’ pointless and point-missing assaults on the quantity, competence and “credibility” of non-catastrophist scientists.) The null hypothesis has no advocate. It needs no advocate. It either withstands the Affirmative’s “argument” or it doesn’t.

    Being a CAGW infidel, you will presumably agree with me that Richard P. Feynman was a true scientist, and that the mediocrities whom the IPCC foists on us as The World’s Top Scientists® would be unfit to examine Feynman’s prostate. But let’s recall Feynman’s advice to science graduates. Scientists, he said, must bend over backwards to point out not only what is right about their theory but also what is problematic about it. Feynman was right: a scientist must be scrupulously unsalesmanlike; yet such candor would be suicide for a debater. This illustrates, I think, that the scientific imperative and the rhetorical imperative are irreconcilable.

    Finally, in that frank and autoskeptical spirit, I must admit that my remarks (particularly in relation to symmetricality) might not apply in certain scientific situations, namely where two “positive” (non-null) hypotheses are competing for the same domain. Here I’m thinking of any number of historical and modern inter-model rivalries. In these cases the “debate” metaphor may well be apt—I’d need to think this through a bit more. (Your thoughts?)

    I don’t, however, regard the climate “debate” as an example of such a competition, because I don’t accept that there is anything to explain, let alone that we deniers are under any obligation to explain it.

    Anyways Shub, let me repeat that whatever the validity of my objection to the “debate” metaphor, it doesn’t problematise the main gist of your post, nor of your thought-provoking elaborations on it.


  6. willard (@nevaudit)

    Oh, and this:

    > But I don’t dwell in prejudice.

    is false.

    For instance:

    willard, if you make up tall tales, being kept in or preferring to remain in the dark about the facts, you lose credibility. Lacis does not engage commenters on a good faith basis. You want to continue to think otherwise, that is your prerogative. There are several other (grasping here) contributors who could serve as good examples for people wanting to have a conversation not go off the rails. Before you pour out more froth about the psychology etc, you must be pausing to think, why, if at all, would I be saying something like this.


    Perhaps “I don’t dwell in prejudice” has another meaning in Lovecraft’s world than the usual one.