There is no reality – how we understand risk

Say a routine scan found a lump in your breast (or testicle if you’re a man, but let’s stick with breasts for the purpose of the story).

Say the doctor said that, without any treatment, you had a 90% chance of dying within the next 5 years.

With a full mastectomy and chemotherapy – that is, you cut off one of your major sex organs, and then subject yourself to 6 months of nausea, pain, loss of income, loss of hair – you reduce your risk to 20%.

Would you take the treatment?

If you had been brought up to believe that modern medicine was the only correct and logical response to illness, would you be more likely to take the treatment?

If you had been brought up to believe that God determined who got ill and died on the basis of behaviour and adherence to biblical tenets, and that only prayer and good works could change his mind, would you be less likely to take the treatment?

If you had read lots about the experiences of cancer sufferers using alternative treatments, and considered the introduction of man-made chemicals into the body to be a threat to core health and energy, would you be less likely to take the treatment?

Presented with a 90% risk of death within 5 years it’s a rare person who sees that physical deformity and temporary severe illness are less important than a longer life. The risks of not taking the treatment outweigh the terrible side-effects. Not to take the treatment seems to most of us to be illogical and demonstrating misunderstanding of the risk statistics.

But there are people who refuse such treatments, against all the arguments put forward by modern science, and sometimes the expectations of those around them.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that  “There is high agreement and much evidence that with current climate change mitigation policies and related sustainable development practices, global GHG emissions will continue to grow over the next few decades” and that there was a 90% chance that humans are causing global warming.

It said that “altered frequencies and intensities of extreme weather, together with sea level rise, are expected to have mostly adverse effects on natural and human systems”.

The IPCC is “a conservative summary” (Pigliucci) of the research being undertaken by climate scientists across the world.

As a community we have been presented with a similar risk to the example above, in relation to the death or severe illness of our planet. Yet this risk is seen in very different ways within the community.

It may be partly to do with the time-frame – 5 years at a personal level seems very different to 50-100 years at a global level.

Would we be more active if it was a 5 year time frame for global warming? Possibly. People (and politicians) sometimes seem to be more able to deal with hard policy decisions in times of crisis. But maybe there’s something more fundamental about the ways that we interpret and make sense of scientific information.

The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School (see full references at the end) has undertaken research in the US about “how individual’s cultural values shape their beliefs about societal risks and policies aimed at reducing them”. In other words, they looked at how our cultural values impact on how we respond to various risks associated with key policy areas.

The areas they looked at included gun control, compulsory vaccination of young women against Human Papilloma Vaccine, and global warming.

What they found overall is that:

Individuals of diverse cultural outlooks … hold sharply opposed beliefs about a range of societal risks, including those associated with climate change, gun ownership, public health and national security. Differences in these basic values exert substantially more influence over risk perceptions than does … gender, race, socioeconomic status, education, and political ideology and party affiliation.

The theory underlying their research divided people into four types based on their cultural values:

Hierachical people – believe that rights, duties, goods and offices should be distributed based on clearly defined social characteristics like gender, wealth, lineage, ethnicity

Egalitarian people – believe that these rights, duties, goods and offices should be distributed equally without regard to such characteristics

Communitarian people – believe that societal interests should take precedence over individual ones – and society should be responsible for ensuring that individuals can flourish

Individualistic people – believe that individuals can flourish without collective interference or help.

The study found that where a person sits in relation to the axis of cultural world views (as outlined above) accurately predicts who will be a global warming skeptic and who will be (in their words) a true believer.

Hierachs and individualists tend to dismiss the claim that global warming is occurring and is a serious threat to our society, whereas egalitarians and communitarians take the opposite view.

They also found that the way that people process the factual information about climate change is conditional on the types of policy and programs will be used to address the problem.

Individualists and hierachs who received a version of the climate change factual information which included a proposal for revitalisation of the nuclear power industry, were less likely to dismiss the factual information itself.

When individualists and hierachs received the factual information with proposals for more anti-pollution regulation, they were even more skeptical about the facts. This is because the “increased regulation” approach is seen to imply restriction of market activity, or challenges to government and business elites.

However, the factual material being accompanied by support for nuclear power development, which in the words of the researchers “is a symbol of industrial markets, human mastery over nature, and the power and competence of scientific and industrial elites”, they are more willing to accept the factual claims.

So, maybe risk, and perceived risk, are less important messages to be conveying in the debate over global warming, than placing the information in a context which is acceptable to the particular sector of the population you are trying to influence.

Which is not to say that climate change activists have to accept and promote nuclear power as an alternative – just that they need to couch their messages in ways that fit as closely as possible the world view of the group they’re lobbying.

When policies are framed in ways that affirm rather than threaten citizen’s cultural values, people are less likely to dismiss information that runs contrary to their prior beliefs. They are also more wiling to weigh and reflect on such information in an environment in which they can see that others who share their values find that information credible

This last point was particularly fascinating in the research. In the section on compulsory vaccination of young women against Human Papilloma Virus, they tried presenting the same information with four different spokes-people, seemingly aligned with the four different cultural world views (love the beardy one)

They found that when a spokesperson who was clearly aligned with a particular cultural world view adopted the stance of a diametrically opposed world view, those who were associated with his world view were more likely to be surprised, and to take notice of what he said.

So, if the head of BHP mining said that we need to reduce the production of coal that would have far more impact on the individualists and hierachist than if the head of Greenpeace said it.

Again these are ideas that people in advocacy and campaigning positions have considered and used in the past. But I wonder what we could do to use this information as effectively as possible in the future?

How could this information be used in convincing our federal politicians to take immediate and effective action on climate change for example? The American researchers say that rather than attempting to move people towards one set of beliefs or another on a disputed issue (say global warming) a better strategy “would be neutralize the tendency of people to polarize along cultural lines as they consider information.”

In the context of the example at the beginning of this piece, this research reminds me how fundamental are people’s values and beliefs, and how crucially they underlie their responses to political and policy issues.

In the same way that I find it hard to understand a choice to use natural therapies rather than surgery/chemotherapy, I find it hard to understand why, as a society, we wouldn’t take dramatic (and probably very painful) action to prevent global warming – given the weight of scientific evidence, and even if there are still some questions about the precise ramifications.

Clearly, there are people in decision making positions who hold very different cultural world views to me, and who are receiving the same information and interpreting it differently. How to “neutralise” the conveying of scientific information may be the big challenge.

There is a culture war in America, but it is about facts, not values. There is very little evidence that most Americans care nearly as much about issues that symbolize competing cultural values as they do about the economy, national security, and the safety and health of themselves and their loved ones. There is ample evidence, however, that Americans are sharply divided along cultural lines about what sort of conditions endanger those interests and what sort of policies effectively counteract such risks (my emphasis).

This week’s actions

Send a summary of this research to the Australian Greens members of parliament across Australia (maybe through the Green Institute??)


The General Cognition Project at Yale Law School. The Second National Risk and Culture Study – Making sense of – and making progress in – the American culture war of fact. Release date September 7 2007 Accessed at on 24 September 2010

IPCC Fourth Assessment Report 2007 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers

I’m reading

Pigliucci, Massimo.  Nonsense on stilts How to tell Science from Bunk University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London, 2010.


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
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One Response to There is no reality – how we understand risk

  1. Judy says:

    Some interesting analogies between the personal and the planetary.
    Hopefully they will help individuals think about the risk we all present to the planet.

    I have recently found Geraldine Li’s chapter in the newly released book ‘Tackling Wicked Problems through transdisciplinary imagination’ an interesting perspective on risk. It focuses on four models of risk – Calculable risk (the only one that is quantitative, but by itself not sufficient), Danger risk, Fate and uncertainty ris, and Omnipresence risk – all of which need consideration in addresing complex problems involving risk.

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