Denial, culture and ideology

October 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

Is climate change denial all to do with uncomfortable emotions and psychological defences as I argued last month? Dan Kahan and the cultural cognition project argue that denial has more to do with a particular kind of rationality that is rooted in people’s cultural beliefs. His research produces some interesting results.

Kahan and cultural cognition

In his paper The Tragedy of the Risk Perception Commons Kahan takes the well-known argument that people tend to rely on heuristics (rules of thumb) to make judgments on risk and examines it further. He shows that it’s not factual knowledge or faulty reasoning that define people’s assessments of climate change. Their responses actually have more to do with whether the solutions to climate change sit comfortably with their existing world view. Kahan’s research identified people on two scales –  ‘Hierarchical vs Egalitarian’ and ‘Individualist vs Communitarian’. People who score highly on both these scales – the ‘Hierarchical-Individualists’ – tend to rate the risk of climate change as low. For these people climate change solutions  threaten things which they value highly, for example commerce, industry and individual freedom. From this standpoint, says Kahan, it’s perfectly rational to reject the science or underestimate the risks. It keeps you in step with the people who matter in your life. To accept the reality of climate change would put these people at odds with their cultural group and its values. Most interesting however is the effect of greater scientific numeracy and literacy amongst this group. Far from shifting their low risk perception, greater scientific understanding tended to amplify it.  This is important because it makes it clear that focusing on improved scientific information won’t do the trick.

Kahan concludes that the answer is to sell climate change in ways that will appeal more effectively to those on the hierarchical-individualist spectrum. Emphasising high-tech solutions like nuclear power and geo-engineering are high on his list. Essentially, this is a return to social marketing – segment the audience, find a creative pitch and sell to people’s existing values and assumptions. The questions Kahan doesn’t raise lurk uncomfortably in the background. Kahan doesn’t ask where people’s ideas and values come from, whose interests different values promote and how some values and not others come to predominate in different historical periods. He doesn’t question why people often hold values that seem to run counter to their personal or class interests (think of the US Tea Party) or why lobby groups work so hard to push their particular framing of issues. Neither does he ask how risk makes people feel and how anxiety influences opinion.

Gramsci and cultural hegemony

Gramsci argued that the powerful maintain their power, not through superior force and overt oppression but through cultural hegemony, a more subtle form of domination by consent. Cultural hegemony means that the terms of the debate become framed in particular ways, certain ideas feel natural, particular actions feel like ‘common sense’ and there seems to be no language to describe other experiences. There is no conspiracy in this, simply the complex and unstable movements of social and cultural currents. From this point of view, Kahan’s hierarchical-individualists could also be read, not as a natural phenomenon but as the unconscious vanguard and footsoldiers of what Professor Stuart Hall refers to in a recent Guardian article as “the long march of the Neoliberal Revolution”.  Over the last thirty years there have been big shifts in ideas about what makes a good life, what constitutes a good society and the relative responsibilities of individuals and the state. Extrinsic rather than intrinsic values dominate public discourse. The market operates as a metaphor for all social relations. The space for speaking about collective rather than individual solutions to social problems has shrunk.

Risk, anxiety and culture shifts

This type of analysis suggests that instead of selling climate change to hierarchical-individualists through nuclear power and geo-engineering we should be thinking more broadly about how to challenge and subvert the neo-liberal hegemony and its dominant values. To take Stuart Hall’s words again, we should be aware of the inherent instability of these cultural positions and look for the emergent “… counter-movements, resistance, alternative strategies and visions …”

More than this however, I think we should be aware of the anxiety that may underlie the hierarchical-individualist position, particularly when it is expressed by people who have very little power in society. Instead of seeing it as a permanent expression of a natural state of mind we should be aware that in a world that feels risky the apparent security of strong authority and big solutions is attractive to many. Talking about how risk and anxiety make people feel and finding other ways of offering security may also be essential.


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§ 3 Responses to Denial, culture and ideology

  • philkorbel says:

    so the question is – how to make participating in local collaborative work more appealing to our individualists? To make it aspirational, prestigious even… I’m part of a new local group in our Stockport suburb, a place replete with more than its fair share of such folk, so that question is lodged firmly in my mind.

    Also, my social enterprise is launching a large scale carbon literacy project for Manchester and again – we’ll be seeking to make the attaining of carbon literacy as aspirational thing. For the individualist/hierarchists we’ll pitch is as something vital for their competitiveness… as you say – segmenting!

    Or do we just make sure that the collaborationists become the majority and the others just have to join in…?

  • Ben says:

    Well, one strategy that is bound to fail is the continued use of the term “denial”, as if global warming was self evident to anyone looking out a window, and not something to be extrapolated and teased out of mounds of scientific research, much of it fairly questioned by quite capable minds. Fred Hoyle was never described as a “big bang denier”. Only a skeptic, or an opponent. “Denier” is a psychologically loaded term. It implies someone who is aware of the truth of something, but for some reason chooses to say otherwise.

    Use of the term is understood by the opposition to mean “I really have no proof for you, so I’ll disparage you.” and achieves precisely those results one would expect. To expect otherwise is to be a Psychology Denier.

    “Skeptic” is the proper word. It says, “We have opposing views on the science, but that won’t cause me to impugn your morals or intelligence”. Merely by extending some respect, the door is opened.

    I suspect strongly that half the opposition to global warming is due to precisely this process. In no other area of science are minority-view scientists held in such contempt; what’s more, the very concept is held in such contempt that it is the only one beyond discussion. This is what led Ivar Giaever to do what he did. He wasn’t discrediting climate science, but the “Opposing Views are Stupid” mentality that currently pervades the mainstream.

    As an alternative model, witness the reaction of scientists to the possibility, however shaky, that neutrinos actually exceeded the speed of light. No slander, no insult, no cries of “Relativity Denier!”- even though the proportion of scientists who believe that relativity is correct is likely as high as the proportion that believe that climate change is correct. Indeed, scientists who certainly believe in relativity are fascinated, and eager to see how this pans out. If a single study seemed to contradict consensus theory on climate science, would you be as eager to see where it led? Or assume the scientists who did it were frauds? If it turns out that neutrinos did do what they seem to have done, they will have debates, and there might even be shouting, but with much less acrimony, and in the end the reigning theory of the cosmos may well be revised. That’s how it should be.

    The use of the term also creates an unhealthy “with us or against us” divide. The fact is, not every prediction connected to climate change has proven to be correct. Is it therefore necessary to believe 100% of future predictions to avoid the “Denier” charge? What percent of predictions can one reject and still not be a “Denier”? What about people who accept the premise, but reject the proposals for counter action based on their belief that costs outweigh benefits? Are they also deniers?

    The use of harsh emotion tends to push all opposition, from the radical “It’s a scam!” fringe to the moderate skeptic, into the same camp. This further empowers the opposition, which then points to the moderate skeptic, whose belief is just slightly short of elevating him from “wicked denier” to “righteous believer” status, and says, “he’s one of us!”

    As a favor to science, I strongly suggest that the term be dropped.

  • Charlotte Rochez says:

    I really enjoyed your talk last Sunday. Your thoughts have formed the basis of a series of reflections for regarding the relationship between climate change and psychology in terms of the ways in which we cope with the crisis and interact with others regarding it.
    With thanks, Charlotte

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