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Trains, nukes, marriage, and vaccines (and anything else): Why the facts don’t matter

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A lot has been written about why people deny the findings of science. Why, ask the devotees of reason, do people’s views on vaccines or climate change not match the overwhelming bulk of the evidence? To that question I would add this; why are these views so fiercely held? Why do disagreements about the facts generate such deep passions, and arguments that are often angry and sometimes violent? It’s almost like people whose views conflict with the bulk of the evidence feel personally threatened when their views are challenged.

This is no small matter. These disagreements can cause great harm – declining vaccination rates, or inaction on climate change, or the fiercely polarized closed-mindedness that precludes compromise and progress. Understanding the phenomenon that Michael Specter observed, but failed to explain in Denialism, is important for reducing these harms.

Research in the social psychology of cultural cognition can provide insights that can help answer these questions. To dive in, let’s start with a quiz. What do the following have in common? (The hints are in italics)

- George Will argues against expansion of rail service, first on factual financial grounds, but then because "…the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism."

- The Citizens Awareness grassroots organization in Vermont opposes nuclear power, but working on the issue serves their higher goal of community action; "We’re All In It Together. (Nuclear power)… is a regional, national and global issue that we all have to work together to solve."

- The Texas House of Representatives proposed requiring colleges and universities that use state funds to support "a gender and sexuality center," to spend an equal amount on a center promoting "family and traditional values."

- The Blue Mountain School offers "a contemplative progressive education" in Floyd County Virginia, which has a "hippie, back-to-nature, eat locally sort of culture" according to one local journalist. More than half the kids in the school are recovering from whooping cough. There’s vaccine for that, but none of the sick kids had been vaccinated. Similar declines in childhood vaccination, and increases in disease, are occurring in other communities where, as Seth Mnookin puts in Panic Virus, people "…question traditional knowledge."

The phrases in italics had nothing to do with the facts of trains or nuclear energy or gender issues or vaccines. They were descriptions of what really mattered to George Will et. al…how those facts felt, through the underlying tribal worldviews of the people involved.

This is how it is with many of our views. Though we argue our positions based on the facts, we are actually just cherry picking the facts to selectively support opinions which agree with the general view of our group.

Group, according to Cultural Cognition, means the kind of society we prefer. The four examples above represent each of the four group views about the way society should operate according to the theory of cultural cognition. It is a powerful idea about why our views so often deny the scientific evidence.

George Will is a banner-waving leader of the group known as Individualists. These are people who think society should mostly leave the individual alone. Government should butt out, not butt in. Politically these folks are Libertarians or Tea Party members. Will’s use of economic data is just a cover for a more fundamental argument, against a threat to individualism and the way he thinks society should work.

The Citizens Awareness folks, on the other hand, prefer a society that’s all in it together, a collectivist world view known in cultural cognition as Communitarians. Communitarians are deeply concerned about environmental issues in part because they require a communal response. Communitarians strongly support social welfare programs and government regulation, because that’s how a "we’re all in it together" society should work.

The family values members of the Texas House are Hierarchists. These are people who prefer a society operating within rigid class structures and the comfortable predictability of the status quo. Hierarchists, for example, will argue for traditional marriage between a man and a woman for lots of supposedly rational reasons, but the core reason is simply that that’s the way it’s always been, and a society living according to ‘the way it’s always been’ and predictable fixed rules feels safe to them.

The anti-vaccine parents of the Blue Mountain School, on the other hand, are referred to in cultural cognition as Egalitarians. They prefer a more flexible society, where people are not constrained by class or traditional knowledge or the limits of the status quo. To them, the rules defining marriage should be more flexible because they prefer to live in a more flexible society.

Cultural cognition research has found that we all fall somewhere on the continua between Individualists and Communitarians, and between Hierarchists and Egalitarians, depending on the issue.

The theory of cultural cognition and its four basic groups derives from the anthropology of Mary Douglas, who found evidence for these views about social organization in primitive cultures. This is not just the stuff of the developed world’s media-fueled culture wars. The evidence suggests that it is tribal, deep, and so widely true in different places that it may well be embedded in us, somehow.

Humans are social animals. We depend on the tribe for our survival. The better our tribe is doing, the better our chances. By choosing positions that align with our group we strengthen our group’s dominance in society, and we enhance our acceptance by the group as a member in good standing. Both of those things are good for our survival. So challenges to our group/tribe – and feeling rejected by our tribe as a welcome and supported member in good standing – feel threatening because in a very real and ancient way and fundamental way, they are.

So communitarian "progressives" threaten George Will, and individualists like George Will threaten communitarian anti-nuke ‘progressives’. Hieararchists who think their traditional family values should be adopted by everyone say they feel threatened by people who want to ‘impose’ their more flexible views, while the flexible Egalitarians use precisely the same language, "threat" and "imposed", to defend themselves against what they feel the more rigid family values people are trying to do.

You can plug in any issue where passion seems to trump science; climate change, or vaccines, or fluoride, or food irradiation. While denying scientific evidence is irrational in one sense, it is entirely rational in the sense that the brain’s job is not to do physics or chemistry or math or win Nobel Prizes. Its job is to help us survive.

And strengthening the tribe on which we social animals depend is a rational way to help achieve that fundamental goal. So it is a form of science denial for rationalists to deny the evidence of what cultural cognition suggests about what "rational" really means.

Do perceptions driven less by the facts than these underlying instincts lead to mistakes…dangerous mistakes, like refusing vaccination or failing to deal with climate change? Sure. But it is a mistake to address these dangers without understanding and respecting the underlying reasons we deny science, and why we so fiercely defend our tribe’s views.

Naively clinging to the expectation of perfectly fact-based reason denies the powerful instinctive influence cultural cognition has on our judgments and behavior, and consigns us to more conflict and less compromise in dealing with the dangers these perceptions can create.

About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Comments 20 Comments

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 10:02 am 04/22/2011

    Okay, if you say so. I didn’t really get anything helpful out of all that. So, what does all of that have to do with the price of tea in China?

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 10:42 am 04/22/2011

    While no ‘Yes Man’, I’d argue with anyone who called me a contrarian…

    Those who consider their community to be populated by scientists often seem to only consider the current conventional wisdom, seen by this author to be rationally supported by the preponderance of scientific evidence. Keep in mind though, that evidence represents the interpretation of observations and that conventional scientific wisdom is often completely overturned in a generation or so. We have never known quite as much as we thought we did.

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  3. 3. Moe DeLon 10:54 am 04/22/2011

    The article talks about the dominance of a personal worldview in decisions about what side to favor in a debate or conflict. I think this is on the mark, but for ignores another reason to question authority, whether scientific or political. I would venture that when people experience the use of authority for personal gain, or to advance a viewpoint, worldview, etc that this creates cynicism. This misuse of authority weakens the trust in the validity of any type of authority. For example, the continual pushing of drugs in television ads creates a sense that all drugs (and by extension) vaccines are promoted primarily to make a profit rather that for the good of an individual or society as a whole.

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  4. 4. John Fairfield 11:19 am 04/22/2011

    I need help, could the author please position Islamophobes on the two-axis grid individual–collective / hierarchic–egalitarian. These are people who, like the rest of us, pick their facts to support their fears. But I’m truly having difficulty positioning them on the grid. They seem to defy the categories thereof. Thank you.

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  5. 5. mihondo2010 11:55 am 04/22/2011

    Faith and trust in the source of knowledge and information are often the bedrock of opinion. If I trust the scientific community, I am more likely to believe in its collective pronouncements. Even as a highly-trained scientist, I am not likely to understand the details of climate change research — what data is there, how it is collected, its assumptions, how the complex computer modeling works, etc. The vast majority of people will rely on other peoples interpretations of the research (or people’s interpretations of other peoples interpretations of ….) and, like the article says, different groups look at the dialog through a different set of world-views or prejudices and arrive and different conclusions.

    The more complex the problem, the worse the trust issue is. So climate change, for instance, being very complex, has a huge trust issue.

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  6. 6. larryriedinger 12:24 pm 04/22/2011

    Interesting, and insightful, article. David provides another way of looking at issues of us vs them; I vs the world; tradition vs modernity; etc.

    Now, add to those common threads in human history the simple fact that the vast majority of people are functionally illiterate about the details of most MAJOR HOT/CRISIS ISSUES that are presented to them.

    And, add to that the simple fact that demagogues of all eras are very much aware of that illiteracy – and play on that with fear-provoking propaganda. And by that, to induce enough of their audience to commit all sorts of horrors – merely to fulfill the demagogues’ true purpose – the lust for power-wealth (P$W$R).

    When I "add all that up," I look for which side of the issue P$W$R LUST supports. I have a tendency to place more trust in the other side(s).

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  7. 7. mackenzie2148 2:40 pm 04/22/2011

    This article caught my eye because it is about something that is both interesting to me and important for everyone to understand. However, it seems to me that David Ropeik grossly oversimplifies this enormously complex topic. I am not familiar with the original anthropological work done by Mary Douglas, but it must me vastly more complex. I would guess that there are many more than four types of human groups, and that they often share attributes. The descriptions of each of the groups mentioned here should be expanded to more completely explain what motivates them. The description of the Egalitarians, for example, says nothing that explains why the group opposes vaccines. I need more information before I can consider this article of any use.

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  8. 8. Grey Seal 2:47 pm 04/22/2011

    I’m always mystified by people who think that travelling in a metal box which, by law, has to bear machine-readable numbers, and obeying endless instructions from road signs, cops, and traffic lights is somehow an expression of individuality and freedom. You might be an individual parked on your driveway, but once you hit the road, you are part of the collective we call ‘traffic’.

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  9. 9. David Ropeik 4:38 pm 04/22/2011


    astute observation. Cultural cognition is just one influence on our perceptions. Trust also plays a huge role. Trust depends on many things…motive, whether the person is seen as a member of our tribe, etc. There’s much more in my book, How Risky Is It, Really? why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts" about various influences, other than reason, on our perceptions.

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  10. 10. David Ropeik 4:41 pm 04/22/2011

    Hierarchists, who are more comfortable with existing class and other social ‘ladders’, would be the group most likely to be threatened by "otherness". This would apply to concerns about immigration as well as religious flexibility, I would think.

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  11. 11. David Ropeik 4:43 pm 04/22/2011

    Mihondo. You are precisely right about the importance of trust. As noted in reply to 3 Moe, cultural cognition is just one influence on our perceptions. Trust also plays a huge role. Trust depends on many things…motive, whether the person is seen as a member of our tribe, etc. There’s much more in my book, How Risky Is It, Really? why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts" about various influences, other than reason, on our perceptions.

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  12. 12. David Ropeik 4:45 pm 04/22/2011

    You are absolutely correct to find this 1,000 word essay a simplification of far richer theory. which is why i encourage you to explore the Cultural Cognition website… there is also much more on this, and other influences on our perceptions of risk, in my book "How Risky Is it, Really? why Our Fears Don’t Always match the Facts"

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  13. 13. wraillantclark 10:45 am 04/23/2011

    This is Political Science 101 written in a language that appeals to scientists! I love it! By the way, what you’re describing here is a variation on the long established "Nolan Chart." Thanks for the useful tool.
    William Raillant-Clark
    International Press Attaché, Université de Montréal
    (and Poli-Sci freak :) )

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  14. 14. kgmusic1 11:16 am 04/23/2011

    Makes perfect sense, and how ironic for a scientific journal to point out a psychological phenomenon that the mainstream U.S. based scientific community is guilty of themselves. Cultural Cognition seems to explain – as does human arrogance, psychological denial, & group think – the U.S. mainstream scientific community’s response(a "group"), based on dismissive ridicule and non-interest, to the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (U.A.P.), otherwise known as U.F.O.s

    The French scientific community’s response, on the other hand, is rooted in public acknowledgement, science based investigations, and publicly released reports stating among other things, that a small percentage of sightings/reports cannot be explained, and that the "E.T. Hypothesis" is a reasonable possible explanation that cannot be ruled out. Kudos to the French and their "group" of scientists.

    Richard Haines, former chief of the Space Human Factors Office for NASA/Ames Research Center, produced a groundbreaking and largely ignored report called “Aviation Safety in America: A Previously Neglected Factor.” Built upon detailed case studies of 56 near misses involving UFOs going back half a century, Haines argued that pilots attempting to avoid collisions might well over-correct, with catastrophic results.

    Last fall, at the National Press Club, retired military officers provided testimony about compromises to our national security nuclear weapons sites due to reported U.A.P. activity. If this had been about terrorists compromising our national security it would have been national headlines.

    There are "facts" and empirical evidence to support the claims of a small percentage of sightings, yet scientists "cherry pick" evidence to support their beliefs and to contribute to their groups accepted response which again, is to ridicule and dismiss.

    Dr. Neil Tyson, in a response to the question about the phenomenon, cited a mistaken sighting, where an individual thought Venus was a U.F.O, as though this was typical of all sightings. He points out the "Argument of Ignorance" as a known psychological phenomenon, to explain the believer’s position, when this point can be equally applied to both sides of this debate. He did this with wit and humor gaining many laughs at the expense of a greater scientific understanding (acceptable group response), when all that was needed from him was a simple no to a very direct question – do you believe u.f.o.s are extraterrestrial?

    Thanks for broadening my understanding of this problem.

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  15. 15. asaffel 1:25 pm 04/23/2011

    It’s rather tiresome that when someone is opposed to vaccines or nuclear power they’re labelled as being "anti-science."

    Other commenters have brought up the issue of trust, which is central to the distrust of those who are opposed to vaccines and nuclear power.

    Science isn’t at the heart of the opposition to vaccines or nuclear power, but a mistrust of those in power who are promoting them. Yes, vaccines and nuclear power can be safe. We acknowledge that, science has proven that, but unfortunately the profit motive does lead organizations to take short-cuts, ignoring the science, that can lead to those things becoming unsafe.

    The nuclear power plant in Japan is a prime example of the distrust of authority in citizens. Had the Japanese government come out and acknowledged the seriousness of the situation instead of continually downplaying it, there would be less distrust.

    How about the three GE scientists who quit the company 25 years ago over safety concerns about the very same reactors in use at the Fukushima power plants? It still wasn’t a scientific issue. I think GE’s greed was the central issue there. They just didn’t want to go and redesign those reactors that they’d spent so much on.

    There are legitimate concerns about the safety of vaccines and other drugs as well. With massive profits at stake, there have been more than a few cases of pharmaceutical companies rushing products to market with either inadequate testing done or faked test data, where the products are actually harmful to those that use them. And we wonder why people distrust government and large companies?

    I think that citizens would prefer that real science actually take place. It would be refreshing to have a system where new drugs and chemicals were adequately tested for their safety before being rushed to market.

    How about properly engineered nuclear power plants where there are a more than adequate number of redundant safety systems?

    I’m totally in favour of science. I’d like to see it being done sometime too.

    More often than not it seems that science has just become a logical fallacy (appeal to authority).

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  16. 16. sleeprun 10:49 pm 04/24/2011

    From a social perspective this is a coherent model, with good evidence. However, it seems a bit post-hoc and focused on symptoms rather than causes.

    We propose the drivers are individual, inherited brain impairments that are labeled and experienced as personality types. For example, a impairment in processing new information can lead to hostile-aggressive triggering. This is more prominent in aging brains — and especially men.

    For example, embarrassment, and one can assume other pro-social reactions degrades with age in impaired people. Disinhibition also increase with age in some. It is estimated that 1/3 of normal aged have sub-clinical mild cognitive impairments. Again, worse for men.

    We saw Mookin speak and raised the question of personality types in vaccine deniers. He reacted defensively and emotionally and did not like that idea at all. The vaccine folks seem to fit a standard set of externalizing behaviors and defensive strategies — IQ is no preventative.

    The assumption that all individuals will accede or can even process fact-based information if wrong. The ways that people will deny the facts are not infinite and fall into certain types based on inherited brain processes — like all behavior.

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  17. 17. viewpointer 4:51 pm 04/27/2011

    Yes, but the good part about the scientific method is that it can change perspective given good reasons while other mental attitudes just ossify.

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  18. 18. viewpointer 4:56 pm 04/27/2011

    I think you’re essentially correct. But I would add that the reason people may look at somthing as "profit making," for example, is because no one has infinite knowledge of all the facts. So, people must use short-cuts where they lack the ability to acquire what’s needed to make an informed opinion. We do this all the time. Some of it may be using induction, but more likely, convenience.

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  19. 19. viewpointer 5:03 pm 04/27/2011

    What I notice is that these "individualist" all have keys in their pockets, have pockets, wallets, coins in their pockets, etc. And this is because these are items needed to function in society. You can expand or contract such items given different situations, but at the end of the day, you’re still in a society and at bottom, you even share a language with one that is not dispensible and, in fact, is necessary to be able to gain what you need to develop yourself as a human individual. So, ultimately, individualism depends on being in a society that can provide the means to achieve that goal.

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  20. 20. Squeedle 10:36 pm 04/27/2011

    To me what the gist of the article is, if you want people to make decisions based on scientific evidence, you need to reframe the issue based on their particular concerns. For example, I might say to Mr. Will: expanded rail travel need not hinder individuality nor promote collectivism; it can give people a wider range of options for travel, it can stimulate competition in the travel industry, and it can relieve some of the environmental damage from too many cars on the road and too much air travel. Plus, it’s safer than driving. Then you can ask whether there are other ways to address the perceived loss of individualism without refusing to fund the railways.

    Once people’s concerns are acknowledged and addressed, you can start finding common ground to negotiate on. However, not all the examples cited in the article involve matters of scientific fact where there are clear choices. Once you start insulting people though, they will dig their heels in and refuse to change their minds no matter what, because you’re threatening their identity. I’m afraid that’s where we are with the right wing.

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