The WPost on Science, Politics, and the Miserly Public
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
As I like to say, when it comes to science debates, the public is far more likely to be miserly in reaching a judgment than fully informed. Most citizens are cognitive misers relying heavily on information short cuts and heuristics to make up their minds about a science controversy, often in the absence of knowledge. The fragmented nature of our modern media system magnifies the problem of a miserly public, introducing the "problem of choice." Absent a strong preference for the really good science coverage available, citizens can completely avoid such information, paying attention instead to just entertainment media or their preferred ideological source of news.
As a result, in order to effectively engage the public, scientists and their organizations need to adapt their communication efforts to the realities of human nature and the media system. This means recasting, or "framing," their communication efforts in a way that remain consistent with the science, but that connects a complex science issue to something that the intended audience already understands or values. (For more, see this recently completed book chapter, The Scientist cover article, the essay at Science, and this journal study.)
I didn't invent these principles, I adapted them from more than sixty years of research in political communication and public opinion, applying them to science debates. In this context, when it comes to understanding what makes for effective communication strategy, there is nothing essentially unique about science from election campaigns or other political skirmishes.
The Washington Post, in an article today, spotlights this rich body of research in the social sciences, interviewing various political scientists who have been tracking levels of political knowledge in the electorate. As they note, levels of political knowledge were very low in the 1950s and they remain so today, despite increased levels of education and orders of magnitude increases in the availability of political news and information.
One of the political scientists I often cite is Samuel Popkin, author of the seminal The Reasoning Voter. He argues that in many cases it is quite rational for citizens to cut down on their information costs by relying heavily on character cues, ideology, and other heuristics in reaching judgments about politics. As a result, effective political strategists and candidates understand how to adapt their message to this reality. Here's what Popkin has to say in the WPost article:
How much credit do we give our most precious resource, the American brain? Is it half-empty or half-full? Americans "don't sound the way the high priests of culture want them to sound," says Samuel L. Popkin, author of "The Reasoning Voter," who tends to give voters more credit rather than less. "They use their own language. They process a lot more than they can recall in interviews. They have a lot better sense of who's on their side and who isn't than they're often given credit for."
Four other political scientists review this aspect of human nature and public opinion in a new book titled "The American Voter Revisited." As the WPost article recounts:
Four years ago, Lewis-Beck and Jacoby and two other political scientists decided to take on "The American Voter" once more. They used the same methods to crunch the data and even organized the book the same way. (They had to eliminate the chapter on the agrarian vote, though, because there aren't enough farmers left anymore for a usable sample.)
"The American Voter Revisited" is chock-full of depressing conclusions, couched in academic understatement. In-depth interviews conducted with 1,500 people during the two most recent presidential elections revealed that the "majority of people don't have many issues in mind" when they discuss voting, Lewis-Beck says. Sometimes they say they're attracted to a candidate because "I just don't think we should change parties right now." They tend to inherit their party allegiance from their parents, and those beliefs tend to stay fixed throughout their lives, he says.
"For many people," the authors of "Revisited" write, "dealing with political issues is too much of a bother."
"If they know they're Republican and have been happy that way, they'll stay Republican," says another of the book's four authors, Herb Weisberg, who chairs the political science department at Ohio State University. Even for those voters who do rethink their allegiance to a given party -- because, say, the party in power has fouled things up -- "if times get better, they'll get back to where they were," Weisberg says. Their attachment to party is more emotional than intellectual, Lewis-Beck suggests, akin to their feelings for sports teams.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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