Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cultural Cognition of Risk

A post at Schneier on Security on the topic of Cultural Cognition of Risk generated some buzz this week, so of course I jumped in...

Here’s one of many online articles on the topic. Here’s the abstract and citation

“People jump from questions of fact to questions of value all the time. A lot of the debate about "what to do?" which is really a question of values and priorities gets reduced to "questions of fact".”

What's more, the debate surrounding those risks chosen to mark the boundaries of the Culture War - abortion, tobacco, free trade, gun control, global warming, war on drugs, fundamentalist religion, global war on terror, NASCAR - are subject to deliberate and sometimes very sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Ideally, the facts should be determined using the scientific method, then the culture can decide what to do about them using political methods. Regretfully, the disinformers who find the likely solutions unacceptable know that it's much more effective to attack the facts and those attempting to discern them. If you can't even decide whether there's a problem then there's no sense proceeding to talk of remedies...

"Interesting, only 97% of scientists believe in evolution yet 100% of Christians believe in God. I'm not sure what, if anything, that proves."

It proves little but may demonstrate an important difference between science and faith. There is also some issue with the definitions of the terms "scientist" and "Christian." Not all PhDs are the molecular biologists whose opinions matter when discussing evolution. Whether any Christian can demonstrate qualifications sufficient to justify a belief in God is another matter altogether.

"...the pro-tobacco lobby quietly funded a cottage industry of researchers to produce studies indicating that cigarettes were not a substantive health risk, just as the fossil fuel industries are doing with global warming."

It's worse than that. In Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway argue that Big Tobacco and Big Oil hired the very same people to orchestrate these disinformation campaigns.

"'...Big Tobacco and Big Oil hired the very same people to orchestrate these disinformation campaigns.'

1. who would YOU have hired? proven performer, or an unknown? these people are evil, not stupid.

2. who did the anti-evolutionists hire? i'm not willing to accept most of this second group as evil, and not stupid either (uneducated, yes...)"

Re Item 1: Good point. If I wanted to preserve the status quo by attacking the evidence and those who do the science (so I didn't have to solve the problem in this generation) I'd hire conservative disinformationists (but I'd ask them to cover their tracks more effectively).

Re Item 2: Biblicists are committed to a presupposition that their edition of the Good Book is literally true and inerrant. Therefore anything that conflicts with their preacher's understanding of it cannot possibly be true. Opposition to evolution is grassrooted, nonscientific, and dogmatic. There are some very smart (even highly educated) people who make a faith commitment to Bible-believing Christianity and then apply all their talents to selectively interpret, twist, and reinvent the science to fit their Iron Age Mediterranean worldview. The non-religious perceive their efforts as so much delusional flapdoodle (see Rob, September 29, 2010 5:16 AM). They need not be seen as evil, but perhaps they should be kept away from the nuclear weapons, policy decisions involving Israel and Palestine, and science text books.

"'If it was up to me I would put all deity worship books etc up on the top shelf with all the other 18+ material.'

History is replete with people who wanted to control what others learned, believed, or read because they where smarter than the ignorant masses."

I suspect the very best curative to the detrimental effects of religion would be a "World Religions - Past and Present" course taught in the public schools no later than the 10th grade. In 9th grade we should teach "Critical Thinking, Scientific Method, and the Psychology of Belief."

"If you don't trust the scientific consensus because you happen to disagree with reality, at least do yourself a favor and look at the actual data."

Won't work. Dissonant data only reinforces our commitment to an idea. Intuition fails us. Scientific exploration of the natural world is an unnatural act.

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