The roles of ‘rationality’, ‘toxicity’ and ‘partisanship’ in interpreting scientific information

The article Why we are poles apart on climate change by Yale U law and psychology professor Dan Kahan came across my ‘desktop’ yesterday.  Climate change is a topic that is hotly debated in the mainstream media and in social media as well.  There are climate change proponents and then there are climate change ‘denialists’.  Personally, I resist resting a foot in any camp as I don’t really know enough about the whole issue of climate change.  But I do know that Kahan’s points are certainly relevant when you consider them in the context of the genetically modified food debate.

There are ardent supporters of the technology at one end of the continuum and very passionate opponents on the opposite side.  But why are we so deeply divided on the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms)? Kahan poses this (à la climate change debate). He suggests that it’s not that people are irrational. Rather, it may be that their reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science-communication environment”“…[C]itizens are …are, in fact, too rational — at filtering OUT [the] information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.”

Hmmm. Now, what does he mean by ‘polluted’ and what does he mean by ‘too rational’? Well, Kahan’s following remark provide insights into that:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand. Usually, this strategy works just fine. We live in a science-communication environment richly stocked…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

So, we are largely influenced by our closely-tied networks, our communities and our families. Makes sense.  I am contemplating Kahan’s ideas further in the context of how (dare I say if?) governments acquire / interpret science based information in order to inform policy-making decisions.  What gaps out there need to be addressed? What can be done?

I would welcome your comments. Kahan’s article is attached. It’s a one-pager and a quick and relatively easy read.

Why we are poles apart on climate change? Kahan, Nature, 2012

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Happy to say that this blog has been picked up and posted by Biofortified at this link and by David Tribe on his blog GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe at this link.  Thanks for the support everyone! 

10 thoughts on “The roles of ‘rationality’, ‘toxicity’ and ‘partisanship’ in interpreting scientific information

  1. Cami,

    I think that is a good analysis. All you have to do is to say something slightly reasonable about biotech on a site like Grist, and you are immediately attacked as a part of the evil conspiracy to kill everyone via GMOs.

  2. I’m not sure I completely (or even partially) agree with Kahan (I may be an exceptional person–I like to think that I am). I have ostracized myself from my peers who all agree global warming is dire and our carbon footprint too large, and organic is good and that GE/transgenic crops are a Faustian bargain.

    Bertrand Russell said, “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.”

    On the side of GE/transgenic, I believe I am confronted with overwhelming evidence that it’s at least as safe as traditional crossbreeding. On the side of catastrophic climate change, I don’t think I have seen overwhelming proof. There has always been a changing climate, and yes the earth is warming, and yes CO2 and methane and nitrous oxide and a host of other gasses are greenhouse gasses, and yes it is (at least partly) a human-caused problem. For agreeing to all but the dire conclusions of it being an existential threat, I get the label of “denialist”.

    We “denialists” for the most part have looked at the modeled projections from years past and they have been wildly off.

    Yet, projections on how a genetic trait would work in a plant or animal seem to pan out most of the time.

    I agree with Matt W Ridley, “Experts are worth listening to about the past, but not the future. Futurology is pseudoscience….The problem is that you can accept all the basic tenets of greenhouse physics and still conclude that the threat of a dangerously large warming is so improbable as to be negligible, while the threat of real harm from climate-mitigation policies is already so high as to be worrying, that
    the cure is proving far worse than the disease is ever likely to be.” (

    • Well said, Norman. And I agree with you. Yet, I think that Kahan made some good observations about human behaviour; ones that I see played out over and over again in society. Like anything, though, there are always exceptions to the rules. There are always folks that will ‘swim upstream’. Yet – I think that we all, on some level, look for things that validate our thoughts and beliefs. I do. I admit it. But I also try to remain as objective as possible. Thanks for quoting one of our most quotables – Ridley. I always enjoy his insights.

      And I guess that I am a climate change denialist as well… as I question the same things that you do. Don’t you just love labels?

      thanks for commenting,

  3. I try to wear my labels proudly, how about you? I am a denier and a shill for Big Ag and Big Oil. Though, I thought one was supposed to be paid for the role of shill. I just get affordable food and energy; I suppose that’s enough.

    I apologize and confess to not reading all of Kahan’s article. Being labeled as a denier (I prefer skeptical environmentalist) for what I perceive as understandable misgivings began to grate.

    Thank you for the opportunity. So often the pro gmo scientific community lump anti-gmo and “denialists” as anti-scientific or irrational. And, I greatly admire the geneticists devising ways to allow farmers to use use fertilizer and pesticide through gene splicing. You didn’t catalog my behavior as irrational.

  4. Kahan makes some good points.

    Denialist is a bit of a slanderous euphemism to describe people who are skeptical. It brings back visions of the holocaust and denial of it and other genocides. It is used by “Warmists” to evoke emotions and “wrongness” of another persons view. When you can’t use science and facts to make your case, you move to emotionalism, slander and mockery. Then you lose. I would never “deny” climate change. We know it changes all the time. We know humans affect their environment – just look at the denuding of the forests around Kilimanjaro. And yet, we are supposed to believe that human induced CO2 is wreaking havoc and will cause a “tipping point”. Given that the geological record shows we have had more warming many times in the past, and the estimate that human produced CO2 is only 3 to 5% of the total, I am sensing a red herring. Farming affects the environment more and we sure are not going to stop farming. And in Canada, warming should be beneficial. I just read my thermometers outside my house. All in the shade. One reads 31.2 at one metre above the ground, the second reads 38.6 at 6 metres above the ground and the third 80 feet from the other two but next to a creek reads 22.6. Studies show siting affects temperature dramatically and our government thermometers are often poorly sited. We can’t even measure temperature consistently so my conclusion is that it is probably warming as we are coming out of the “Little Ice Age”. But given that it a few months those same thermometers will be reading minus 30, I can’t get real excited about a fraction of a degree Celsius … in either direction.

    And almost everything you read about global warming comes from a “MODEL”. Not actual raw data since even the temperature records have been “homogenized”. Once upon a time the American 1930’s were hotter than now. Then it was decided the recorded temperatures should be run through a computer algorithm to make them more consistent and voila … it got hotter now. Makes me a little bit skeptical.

    Sorry this got a bit long. By the way, “Nature” has a horrible reputation for pushing catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW).

    • Wayne: I like your statement “I can’t get real excited about a fraction of a degree Celsius … in either direction.” That probably quite accurately reflects my viewpoint. Add to that, my skepticism around approaches to ‘modeling’ that don’t have the benefit of real data (as you point out).

      But, again, I haven’t really delved into the whole ‘climate change’ thing too much. Too busy with the “GMO” camp.

      Good dialogue here. Thanks for contributing, Wayne.


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