Andy Revkin has done a post that combines together a discussion of my Mother Jones piece with, appropriately, an analysis of the recent claims and counterclaims over the greenhouse gas implications of fugitive methane emissions from unconventional gas drilling (e.g., fracking). It includes a Q & A between us:
REVKIN: I would love your sense of why climate, as a hot-button issue, is more salient than vaccines in the political arena. Presumably it’s because it’s a direct link to the wallet for anti-tax folks and vaccines are a much smaller base of concern (people with young kids)?
You didn’t mention genetically modified organisms or radiation, two other arenas where the communitarians [Kahan's descriptor for what others might call liberals] have what seems to be a high “dread to risk ratio“….
Finally, this seems to clash with the enduring vision that inertia on climate (and related issues) derives from heavy spending by fossil fuelers and media muddle. My learning curve on cultural cognition has led me to mostly abandon my expectation that better information and communication could change the public debate.
Do you see any need for the environmental movement to abandon its longstanding claim that the public is inert on climate and energy because of the themes in “Merchants of Doubt” and, to an extent, “The Republican War on Science?”
ME: First, this approach does not suggest that my first book (Republican War on Science) was wrong — e.g., there really were all these attacks on science, as you know from having reported on them — but it does suggest that the book did not fully describe motivations and mechanisms, as my Mother Jones piece begins to do. But a lot of this political psychology research has been coming on strong since the book came out in 2005.
A similar comment would also apply to the issue of industry spending on think tanks that challenge climate science. On the one hand, it is very important for the political right to have this echo chamber out there — and the arguments generated by conservative think tanks would interact with the biased reasoning processes that are the subject of my piece in a kind of one-two combination.
The problem is thinking that “follow the money” can allow you to fully explain and understand climate change skepticism. It’s not simply about protecting profits — it seems more about advancing a libertarian ideology, or in Kahan’s schematic, individualistic and hierarchical values.
As for media muddle — I still believe that is a very big deal. We have plenty of evidence on how Fox News fuels rejection of climate science, and how this interacts with the processes of biased reasoning I talk about in the article. As with the conservative think tanks and the arguments they generate, it’s kind of a double whammy. The core problem, I believe, is the interaction between our penchant for biased reasoning on the one hand, the deeply polarized political climate (which pushes emotional buttons rather than encouraging calm deliberation), and the rich misinformation environment (there’s a ready-made argument in defense of anything and everything).
I do think the issue of nuclear radiation also fits this “motivated reasoning” analysis–especially after having focused on the issue on Point of Inquiry. If you’re committed to opposing nuclear power, you will drive up the estimates of death from Chernobyl. If you’re a fan of nuclear power, you’ll be inherently skeptical of really high Chernobyl death counts. And you’ll “reason” accordingly.
I also think greens have exaggerated the human health dangers of consuming genetically modified foods–and used this example in The Republican War on Science. Again: The left is not immune to this stuff. Who is worse? That’s a complex question, beyond the scope of this post.
Finally, I wasn’t really sure how to compare climate and vaccines, in terms of their political salience. It’s certainly true that the scale of the problems is vastly different. I do expect that anti-vax efforts will explode into political attention again very soon….