Perversions of open-minded thinking on climate change

by Kip Hansen

Climate skepticism: a ‘perverse’ effect of ‘actively open-minded thinking’.

Dan M. Kahan and Jonathan C. Corbin, of the Cultural Cognition Project, have a new study titled “A note on the perverse effects of actively open-minded thinking on climate-change polarization” appears in the journal Research and Politics (October-December 2016) [link to full manuscript].

The study is summed up by the first two sentences of its abstract:

“This research note presents evidence that political polarization over the reality of human-caused climate change increases in tandem with individuals’ scores on a standard measure of actively open-minded thinking. This finding is at odds with the position that attributes political conflict over facts to a personality trait of closed-mindedness associated with political conservatism.”

Kahan and Corbin call this a “perverse” effect of “actively open-minded thinking”. One might wonder why.

Kahan has been a champion of the idea of Cultural Cognition which he defines as:

“Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.”

In a long series of studies he has found that Liberal-Progressive-Democrats (the left) generally support the scientific consensus on climate change and the better these individuals score on Kahan’s survey/test of “Ordinary Science Intelligence” – how well the individual understands basic current science and math – the more they would agree with these two basic questions about climate change:

C. Acceptance of human-caused climate change

The outcome variable for acceptance of human-caused climate change was formed using these items, scoring “1” for the response sequence “Yes” and “a” and “0” otherwise:

  1. WARMER. From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not? [YES/NO]
  2. WHYWARMER [only if WARMER = YES]. Do you believe that the earth is getting warmer (a) mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels or (b) mostly because of natural patterns in the earth’s environment?

[Note that the “correct” answers are “Yes” andmostly because of human activity”. See the underlined answer in the image below –kh]

In Kahan’s system of left-vs-right/Democrat-vs-Republican cultural cognition, this first premise is upheld by surveys performed. But, contrary to expectations, the better Right-leaning/Republicans scored on ordinary science intelligence; the less they accepted the consensus-version of climate science.


As if this wasn’t bad enough, in this new study, comes this finding: “As subjects’ AOT [actively open-minded thinking] scores went up, their acceptance of human-caused climate change increased only if they held left-leaning political outlooks. Among right-leaning subjects, higher AOT scores were associated with slightly less acceptance (Table 1).” [my emphasis]



Translation, taking both results into account:  Right-leaning subjects (Conservatives-Republicans) who have a better understanding of current science and math and/or can be characterized as having the mental/personality trait of actively cultivating an open mind have less belief in the consensus version of climate change.

This is the result that Kahan and Corbin label “perverse”.  In order for their hypothesis of cultural cognition and open-mindedness to be supported in regards to climate change, at least, increasing open-mindedness should reduce the amount of polarization on the topic – if everyone was more open-minded, they would see each other’s viewpoints and agree more.

They have already offered many reasons why Conservatives-Republicans more well-versed in science would be less accepting of climate change. [the short form answer according to Kahan seems to come down to that when they know more science, they are better at applying the necessary confirmation bias to allow them to remain skeptical despite “overwhelming evidence”.]

The current study admits “These are not the patterns one would expect to see under AOTp. We can think of three explanations.”

[AOTp: “Some surmise that a deficit in this disposition [actively open-minded thinking] associated with ideological conservatism …. might be the source of political polarization over facts that admit of empirical proof—for example, that human activity is causing the temperature of the earth to increase….We will call the position that AOT has this significance for politics the “AOTp thesis.”].

Their three explanations  are:

  1. “One is that AOTp is simply false. AOTp is one variant of a more general claim that an asymmetry in critical reasoning explains political conflict over contested policy relevant facts.” If AOTp is false, then cultural cognition is safe from this non-supporting result. Kahan and Corbin report “The evidence we have presented, while based on a self report measure of reasoning style, adds further weight to the case against the asymmetry thesis.”
  2. “As relatively liberal individuals make gains in the form of cognitive proficiency measured by the [AOT] scale, their opinions become progressively more aligned with the view that predominates in the group. The same is so for more conservative ones, although the effect is admittedly less dramatic…” This is meant to tell us that liberals but not conservatives become more likely to align with their cognitive cultures values when they are being a more-open-minded — thus being conservative and open-minded makes one less likely to agree with consensus climate science. [If you understand this line of reasoning, please explain it in the comments.] (Some of this apparently has to do with how the AOT test may not really measure what social scientists think it measures….)
  3. “Because our evidence contravenes this expectation, it could be that the AOT scale on which our results are based is not faithfully measuring any genuine AOT disposition.” This expectation being: “AOT is supposed to evince a motivation to resist “my side” bias in information …. Thus, one might naturally expect the individuals highest in AOT to converge, not polarize all the more forcefully, on contested issues like climate change.” Maybe AOT self reported status is not “genuine”. This could be read to mean: “Those AOT guys are wrong … not us.”

It is hard to read a study like this, especially in the social sciences, where the science is so soft. Yes, there are data; yes, the data are graphed in scatter plots and statistically analyzed; yes, there are long lists of references and citations at the bottom of the paper. However, this is a Research Note paper – thus it does not follow from the statement of a study design, the hypothesis to be tested, give the methods, results, conclusions, and discussion.   We cannot know from the paper itself if we are being presented with an ad hoc finding – an after-the-fact rationalization.   It seems apparent to me that they started out to show that increases in open-mindedness would lead to narrowing the polarization on the subject of climate change, thus allowing an entry point into the problem through encouraging open-mindedness – open-mindedness as a cure for cultural cognition. That idea is not supported by these findings – in fact, the opposite seems to be true.

There is one glaring – searchlight bright – thing missing from the explanations that Kahan et al have advanced to explain the following social science results from their own studies:

  1. Conservatives who know more about science and math are less likely to accept consensus climate science.
  2. Conservatives who are more open-minded appear less likely to accept consensus climate science.

Kahan never once considers that maybe there is something about consensus climate science that makes it less likely to be accepted by the more conservative scientifically knowledgeable and conservatives who are more open-minded.   Maybe, just maybe, the more one understands the principles and facts involved in climate science and the more open-mindedly one delves into the gory details — not just taking the word of Acknowledged Authorities and Learned Societies — the less likely one is likely to simply accept consensus-version climate science.

Kahan seems hoisted on his own petard – afflicted by his own enemy – forced to conform his beliefs about disputed matters of fact, in this case whether global warming is a serious threat and why everyone doesn’t just agree…. to values that define his cultural identities. He doesn’t consider that maybe his view of cultural cognition might be flawed in some way, that it might not be the driving factor of personal understanding about contentious issues. More importantly, he fails to even consider that a “National Academy of Sciences ‘expert consensus’ report” (on any topic – he cites three examples in the paper titled “Making Climate-Science Communication Evidence-based—All the Way Down”) could possibly be anything other than absolutely true and correct. He fails to consider that there may be honest, reasonable, intelligent, unbiased minds that don’t accept [the version of] the “truth” as written in these reports. Thus he offers his theories which posit that those who fail to accept and conform to these consensus positions must be suffering from some cognitive social ill (cultural cognition influences, confirmation biases, the Science Communication Problem).

That there can be, and are, honest scientific differences of opinion on the key points of Climate Science, particularly on the human attribution issue and the degree of threat represented by climate change. Honest scientific differences is really the simplest explanation to his findings, entirely sufficient on its own, requiring the least number of extraneous additional theoretical constructs and assumptions

Moderation note:  As with all guest posts, please keep your comments civil and relevant.


Filed under: Sociology of science

Judith Curry

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