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Why do members of the public disagree—sharply and persistently—about facts on which expert scientists largely agree?
Despite the steady and massive accumulation of scientific evidence, the American public is as divided about climate change today as it was ten years ago. Why is that?
It seems that expert opinion is only expert opinion when it agrees with our opinion. This study found that people more readily count someone as an expert when that person endorses a conclusion that fits their cultural predispositions. The study calls this cultural cognition — individuals tend to form perceptions of risk that reflect and reinforce one or another idealized vision of how society should be organized. Thus, according to the study, generally speaking, persons who subscribe to individualistic values tend to dismiss claims of environmental risks, because acceptance of such claims implies the need to regulate markets, commerce, and other outlets for individual strivings.
Why do members of the public disagree—sharply and persistently—about facts on which expert scientists largely agree? We designed a study to test a distinctive explanation: the cultural cognition of scientific consensus. The “cultural cognition of risk” refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values. The study presents both correlational and experimental evidence confirming that cultural cognition shapes individuals’ beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus, and the process by which they form such beliefs, relating to climate change, the disposal of nuclear wastes, and the effect of permitting concealed possession of handguns. The implications of this dynamic for science communication and public policy-making are discussed.