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.