Why Don’t People Trust Experts?

To follow on from my previous post (The Evil Truth about Scientific Consensus), why are we more or less likely to trust experts? Kahan et al. (2010) provides some illumination on the subject. None of us are free from bias.

In fact, cultural cognition seems to play a role in our lives. In short, cultural cognition relates to what many of us talk about when we mention confirmation bias, but more in that we tend to be bias in weighing new information depending on its implications to group values we consider to be morally sound or not (Kahan et al. 2010). There are of course, degrees of open-mindedness and close-mindedness that influence how bias we are towards new information, however in all, regardless of whether you are (to use Kahan et al. 2010 grouping) an hierarchical individualist or egalitarian communitarian, it’s just plan easier to believe information that fits your perception of the world from individuals whom share your values.

Take, for instance, how anthropogenic climate change is framed; to the more egalitarian individual, it isn’t threatening – indeed it fits into the environmental / community based values of the group. On the other hand, to the individualist, it’s framed to threaten the values of free enterprise and imposes restrictions to personal freedom (again, Jo Nova’s “We want you to change…” comic is a great example of this framing – she really is an excellent source for reference).

Likewise, scientific consensus doesn’t receive due reasonable doubt (rather, flat out rejection) when it challenges cultural values. In seeking out validating information, over time, we are more likely to perceive that the majority of experts, thus the consensus, largely agree with our conclusions (Kahan et al. 2010).

Another interesting finding by Kahan et al. (2010) is that climate change featured the strongest disparity between the two groups of the subjects analysed (ie. climate change, nuclear waste and concealed weapons). Kahan et al. (2010) also state that individuals tend to be more open-minded to information and more likely to accept it, when they believe experts with a diverse range of values concur on the conclusion. With the level of attention climate change has gained in recent years, coupled with the political framing (similar to that suggested above) carried out, it seems clear that this disparity is in no way the result of the body of empirical evidence, but almost entirely the result of political polarisation.

The strong scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change doesn’t hold its due weight, even against such flimsy opponents as Christopher Monckton, because the message received from the former is one against personal values shared by the certain groups of people while the latter instead appeals directly to those values (ie. the evidence becomes inconsequential). Christopher Monckton, for instance (but the same about any one of the other noted “sceptics”), employs a bombastic and politically compelling counter-argument unhindered by genuine evidence and still enjoys a globe-trotter’s life and a devoted following regardless how often his proven to be wrong.

While such events may make many of us (myself included) bulk at the seeming stupidity, in the correct context, it makes sense to such individuals and should remind us that it’s not really a debate about atmospheric science (who would have thought something as obscure a field of science would erupt in such a way?) but one of values, or, more correctly, sacrifice and reward.

The political debate over the reality of anthropogenic climate is framed as a check-mate position given to the progressives / egalitarian communitarian (or whatever else you would like to call them), disempowering the contrarian.

Decoding Moncktonian drivel, his message is a simply one; these bastards want to take your dreams away – they want to render your values mute. It’s not a clear message, nor does he deliver it with much weight (as anyone who has bothered to look up his references quickly learns), however it is compelling and it is well engineered for its primary audience.

At the same time, it’s beyond the doubt to me that there are people convinced by climate change for the exactly the same reason; they see it as a win for the progressives. I have had my fair share of, what should I call them – extreme progressives (?) – that hit the ground running and onto new lands that bewilder me.

Yet none of this actually touches the science at hand nor addresses the unified chorus of the genuine expert community. It’s a sideshow.

The truth of the matter is that the following is now beyond question; 1) CO2 is a greenhouse gas, 2) we are emitting gigatonnes of the stuff, notably changing the atmosphere (and when you ignore Oxygen and Nitrogen – both of which play no role in trapping heat, this change is significant), 3) we have been witnessing climate change over the industrial era that is largely explained by our CO2 emissions (and to a lesser extent, other greenhouse gas emissions), 4) this effect will get greater the more CO2 we put into the atmosphere.

Nowhere in there do we see a political message. It is neither inherently conservative nor progressive. It doesn’t call for broad scale egalitarian living nor a new stone age. We have allowed it instead to become a progressive initiative (while the conservatives accused it as such, we did little to stop it) thus closing the door to the opportunity for experts of diverse values and with it, broad scale open-mindedness.

Kahan et al. (2010) offer advice on how to combat this, which has led some of musings above. I suspect the primary issue is to counteract this polarisation. For instance, while the case is often made that the carbon tax is progressive (as regulations and taxes are tended to be considered), in truth, it’s giving industry the kick up the rear to develop measures to reduce its overheads, eventually reducing its own tax contribution while potentially making money from new invention and innovation. Where chance throws an obstacle, the opportunistic find a new niche. In fact, Taylor et al. (2005) show that regulation is an efficient driver of innovation. Leaving it up to the market, as some suggest can be argued as the cause of the degradation we are now witnessing; in other words, market failures.

I don’t think we can depoliticise the issue, but we can depolarise it. Reframing the issue (ie. focusing on innovation of markets rather than regulation) may open the door for more contrarians to be at least willing to discuss what opportunities they could see in such a hypothetical future. Such is what is needed to overcome this ongoing drama.


For more of my recent discussions on values;

The Values of Anthropogenic Climate Change

Have We Lost Control?

Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming

Imposing Meaning: The Conflict Between Ideologies Masked as Reasoned Debate

Heroic Individualism: Protecting Us From Hidden Bankers?


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