Politics, Science

Sources of political disagreement: “tribal cognition” versus “cultural cognition”

Free Photo: Balloon Test

Why does the presentation of persuasive evidence — even evidence of a scientific consensus — so often fail to resolve political debates? How is it, for example, that so much of the American public on the right refuses to accept the scientific consensus regarding the causes and risks of climate change?

For a while now, I’ve thought that Dan Kahan’s theory of “cultural cognition” offered the most persuasive answer to these questions. Kahan rejects the idea that the problem lies in Republicans’ lack of information about climate science. Offering more evidence isn’t going to resolve the issue at this point. It might even aggravate the problem.

Rather, Kahan offers empirical evidence that the Republican resistance to climate science is an example of a more general phenomenon: the human tendency to arrive at conclusions that are congenial to our cultural values, and to resist, dismiss, or attack conclusions that threaten our values and identities.

But the more I’ve learned about the specifics of the cultural cognition theory, the more I’ve felt like it leaves something out.

In this post, I’d like to propose a hypothesis that complements cultural cognition’s explanation for the frequent failures of evidence-based discussion to lead to increased agreement on politically charged issues. When I first heard about Kahan’s work, I thought that the theory I’m about to present was what he meant by “cultural cognition.” But as I’ve read more about his work, it’s become clear to me that the idea I have in mind is a distinct one.

I’ll call the hypothesis “tribal cognition.”

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Bruce Ackerman and the Reagan Era

A quick note for anyone reading this blog who doesn’t come from a background in the law: these days, if you study American constitutional theory in law school, one of the major writers you’ll inevitably come across is Bruce Ackerman, a professor at Yale Law School. I’m not sure how widely read Ackerman is in political science or American history programs. But in law schools, if you hear the argument that America has gone through a small number of fundamental constitutional transformations—above all, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and again during the New Deal—chances are the speaker inherited this idea directly or indirectly from Ackerman.

Since my thumbnail sketch of American political history also relied on there having been a fundamental political transformation during the New Deal, my account probably has some of its roots in Ackerman’s work. But based on what I’ve heard, Ackerman would disagree with the idea that the Reagan era represented the same kind of hard-fought, deeply rooted constitutional transformation that took place during Reconstruction and the New Deal. Instead, Ackerman’s latest book—which I haven’t read yet—may suggest that the most recent constitutional transformation took place through the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

It’s probably not worth arguing over, but it seems to me—for the reasons stated in previous posts—that there are a lot of parallels between the political transformations of the New Deal era and of the Reagan era, even if the former were undoubtedly more consequential than the latter. And the Reagan era, as I’ve sketched it, fits well within the basic parameters of Ackerman’s model of constitutional transformation: a challenge to the legitimacy of a previous era’s understanding of the Constitution, a political struggle involving multiple branches of government, a battle for the public’s allegiance, victory by the challenger, and ultimate acquiescence in the transformation by former opponents.