Expert Commentary

Cultural cognition of scientific consensus

2010 study by the Yale, George Washington Law School, and the University of Oklahoma on how values shape perceptions of expert agreement and truth.

Beliefs about how risky something is — from legalizing concealed handguns to allowing carbon pollution — are often shaped by deep cultural forces. The theory of “cultural cognition” suggests that individuals will interpret evidence, no matter how well supported by science, in ways that reinforce their connections to those with whom they share a worldview.

A 2010 study by scholars at Yale Law School, George Washington Law School and the University of Oklahoma published in the Journal of Risk Research, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus,” surveyed 1,500 U.S. adults about questions of risk and what they believed to be the scientific state of knowledge. Participants reviewed scientific statements and were asked if they thought most other experts agreed, disagreed or were divided.  Some of the statements emphasized the great risk of issues such as climate change, nuclear waste disposal and concealed firearms, while others downplayed the risks.

The study established and characterized subjects’ overall worldviews and underlying cultural predispositions along two dimensions: the spectrum from hierarchy to egalitarianism; and from individualism to communitarianism. The findings include:

  • Participants consistently assumed ideas about scientific consensus that conformed to their underlying cultural predispositions.
  • 78% of egalitarian communitarians perceived that most expert scientists agree that global warming is occurring, while 81% of hierarchical individualists believe that scientists are divided and or that more scientists disagree.
  • 55% of hierarchical individualists thought that expert scientists are divided on whether or not humans are causing global warming, and 32% perceive that scientists disagree with this idea.
  • On the issue of whether or not allowing concealed handguns reduces crime, 47% of hierarchical individualists thought that scientists agreed and 47% of egalitarian communitarians believed scientists disagreed.
  • On the question of nuclear waste disposal safety, 45% of both hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians perceived that scientists are divided.
  • When participants were shown the profile of an expert and asked to assess trustworthiness, the answer depended on whether or not the expert’s position on an issue already fit their cultural worldview.
  • 88% of egalitarian communitarians thought an expert who underscored the high risks of global warming was a “trustworthy and knowledgeable expert.” 86% of hierarchical individualists thought an expert was trustworthy if he said it presented a low risk.
  • When a supposed scientist said concealed firearms were highly risky, “egalitarian communitarians and hierarchical individuals were divided 80% to 23% on whether he was an expert.”

The authors conclude that cultural cognition should be taken into account in public deliberations about risk. “It is not enough to assure that scientifically sound information — including evidence of what scientists themselves believe — is widely disseminated,” they write. “To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.”


Keywords: cognition, guns, nuclear power, global warming, crime, climate politics, cultural cognition, climate change, gun control, nuclear power, risk, public opinion

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