Global Warming, Nukes, and the Cultural Police

There are plenty of good reasons for those who believe they are shepherds of God’s creation to care about global warming; and there are plenty of good reasons for environmentalists to prefer nuclear power over fossil fuels, given the relative ecological impact. So why are prominent members of the religious right complaining about the growing environmentalism among evangelicals? And why are some environmentalists inflamed by the warming of greens to nuclear power?

One common complaint by the disgruntled is that their wayward brethren are simply mistaken about the facts. Plenty of those on the right complain that global warming hasn’t been conclusively demonstrated; or they argue that even if it is occurring, that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And plenty of environmentalists argue that nuclear power hasn’t yet been proven safe. This kind of hyper-skepticism, though, doesn’t exactly pervade the reasoning of either group on other issues. Indeed, we are all selectively skeptical in this way about certain things. So why some things and not others?

Here, I think, the theory of cultural cognition can help.


One way to think of cultural cognition is as a set of values-based heuristics and biases – mental shortcuts that are often helpful and sometimes harmful. Consider, for example, how ordinary citizens form political attitudes. Individuals can’t pay attention to all the issues that political leaders must address, so they attend selectively to a few issues that serve as proxies for broader values. They then use these values-indicating issues as proxies for broader interests. A person might, for example, say: “If this candidate agrees with me on guns, gays, abortion, and the environment, I’ll trust that she has my interests at heart on the other (boring and complicated) stuff.” This, as the late Aaron Wildavsky pointed out, allows citizens to form highly affective perceptions of candidates and issues very quickly based surprisingly little information.

But for cultural heuristics to operate in this manner, a community needs a relatively stable set of values-related issues to use as proxies for interests. Objections to changes in attitudes on these issues may thus be a conscious form of cultural-political regulation in which a community leaders try to keep members from wandering too far off the symbolic reservation. As Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council put it: “We’re saying what is being done here is a concerted effort to shift the focus of evangelical Christians to these issues that draw warm and fuzzies from liberal crusaders.”

The job of the cultural police is made easier by a host of cognitive mechanisms that help individuals evaluate factual evidence quickly in much the same way they evaluate politicians and policies. It is simply easier to believe that that which is base is also dangerous; and that which is noble is benign. When confronted with evidence that doesn’t conform to this pattern – especially if it is from someone who doesn’t share our values – we are more likely to dismiss it as biased and untrustworthy. That’s why it’s actually quite hard—cognitively speaking—for many on the right to credit evidence about the dangers of global warming and for many on the left to credit evidence about the benefits of nuclear power.

All the more reason, then, for the cultural police to worry when members of their community start to talk like the cultural opposition—it heralds the potential of cultural cascade. When evangelicals translate environmental issues into the language of scripture, for example, they turn many of these cognitive heuristics around, making it far easier for members of their community to credit risks that they might otherwise reject. Moreover, because they are members of the community to which they speak, they are granted more implicit trust than are cultural outsiders. By lowering the cognitive barriers to cultural change, this kind of innovation can be particularly threatening to the stability of cultural politics in which a communities leadership is heavily invested.

So what’s my point? If cultural hard-liners in both camps have cause for concern, they may be overlooking significant unintended victories. As has been hypothesized by the folks over at the Cultural Cognition Project (Dan Kahan, John Gastil, Geoff Cohen, Paul Slovic, Doug Kysar, and others including myself), recasting nuclear power as ecologically beneficial might make some greens think twice about it, but it is also likely to make conservatives think differently about global warming. In a series of experiments now underway, project members are testing the hypothesis that conservatives who would otherwise be dismissive of information about global warming become more receptive when the solution set includes cultural congenial elements like nuclear power — and even more convinced when it comes from someone who shares their values. If this turns out to be true, then one way environmentalists can convince conservatives that global warming really is a serious problem is to tell them that nuclear power is, at least potentially, part of the solution.

In a similar vein, I wouldn’t be surprised if progressives start to warm to Christianity in a similar fashion. So while watching the documentary Mountain Mourning might change some evangelists’ ideas about environmental issues, it can also effect attitudes of non-evangelical environmentalists toward evangelicals and faith. I can only give anecdotal evidence here, but some of my died-in-the-wool green friends are starting to think about the evangelical community in a different light.

What’s the moral of the story? It’s not that we should give up cultural politics — we can’t. It’s too deeply woven into our social and cognitive lives to be overcome. But cultural politics can be more interesting and innovative than many assume. The cultural police don’t have a monopoly on what is said, and the level of cultural-cognitive innovation seems, at least on some fronts, to be heating up. Should make for some interesting times!

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4 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    The arguments against nuclear power are many and varied, not the least of which being that while it is ‘the most heavily subsidized energy technology in the United States, receiving more than $3 billion per year in the form of taxpayer subsidies…it is one of the most expensive energy sources today.’ Why is it the case that ‘in most nuclear nations of the world, there is a government-guaranteed liability limit for nuclear industries, in the event of a major accident[?] In the United States this liability limit amounts to about $8 billion, or about 1 percent of the total losses from a worst-case nuclear accident. The main logical problem with the liability limit is that, if nuclear power is safe, then no liability limit is needed. The main ethical problem with the liability limit is that it threatens the due-process rights of the minority of people who might be nuclear accident victims.’ As Shrader-Frechette also notes, nuclear energy ‘imposes most of its costs on future generations, while present generations receive virtually all of its benefits.’ Indeed, ‘no nation of the world yet has a safe and acceptable method of radioactive waste disposal, and the disposal programs used so far have been plagued with numerous safety problems.’ Finally, and ‘perhaps most important of all…the problem with commercial nuclear fission is that it is not sustainable. Uranium fuel will run out, and radioactive waste will increase, if atomic energy continues to be used. Use of short-term non-sustainable technologies not only imposes disproportionate pollution, resource depletion, and environmental injustice on future generations, but also avoids investment in cleaner, safer, long-term technologies.’ When assessed by standards and criteria derived from ‘environmental justice, economics, climate change, and sustainability,’ nuclear energy remains an unpalatable future energy choice. The quotes are from Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2002). See too her earlier book, Risk and Rationality: Philosophical Foundations for Populist Reforms (Berkeley, CA: UCP, 1991). There are a plethora of arguments that can be rationally assessed without assuming undue or distorting reliance on cognitive heuristics. And the Faustian ecological bargain suggested here is not necessary to tackling the issue of global warming: even corporate America is going green and addressing the problem, as evidenced in this recent article from the Los Angeles Times http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-green4mar04,1,6313305.story

  2. James Aach says:

    Speaking as someone who works in the nuclear industry (but tries to keep an open mind about all energy sources), one of the big problems with any public discussion about nuclear is that most politicians, pundits, press, or members of the public don’t have a good picture of the real world of atomic power, regardless of their position on this issue. There’s little common language or perception – some base their feelings on what they saw in a movie, others on a few quick news items, others on science magazine articles or books by advocates or dissenters. None of these are particularly enlightening sources. It’s difficult to spot the flaws in an argument when the participants don’t have a common grasp of the basic topic (and few have any real insight). This seems to be the case in some science and technical issues where the work is done out of the public eye and requires some scientific perspective to understand (stem cells and global warming may be two other examples, as are other methods for electricity production.) Contrast that with debates on war and peace, or poverty. There’s a set of basic understandings there of what these things are (even if there’s disagreement on causes, usefulness, etc.)

    I’ve provided an insider’s overview of the “real” US nuclear industry in my novel Rad Decision, available online at no cost to readers at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com or in paperback.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    It is interesting that some forms of science and technology are seen as esoteric (i.e., ‘when done out of the public eye’) and requiring ‘scientific perspective to understand,’ in other words, requiring some level of scientific expertise, until or unless scientists and those with a stake in their activities are seeking funding from a government agency. At such times such expertise is translated and crafted into a ‘public’ language so as to acquire the funds thought necessary for progress in this or that scientific inquiry and endeavor. I happen to think any decently educated layperson can get a grasp of the basics of nuclear power generation and the nuclear power industry if he or she is motivated to do so, hence the knowledge needed to make informed decisions is not that difficult to attain. In any case, and for better and worse, public policy decisions are not simply or solely about the best scientific or technological means to given ends, or else we would defer to scientists in cases involving their expertise. Rather, scientific, technical and professional considerations are balanced with other (sometimes wider and deeper) concerns revolving around, say, health, economic welfare, democratic values and processes and so forth. In other words, such concerns bring into play the common good, public values and ethics that are not the specialized prerogative of scientific experts. Even if laypersons are ignorant of the ‘technical details of the consequences, technologies, and research that they fear [….] members of the public argue that they have the right to decide the risks that others will impose on them, precisely because the justifiability of risk imposition is an ethical, not merely a technical, issue.’ In a would-be democratic regime, it is not only experts that make ethical judgments and decisions that affect the public’s welfare and well-being (and it is necessary to recall, after Kahneman, Tversky, et al., that experts chronically make mistakes, when reasoning probabilistically, even in their own fields of expertise!). And from the side of science, scientific researchers are, or at any rate should be, constrained by the ethics of scientific research, ethics that preclude, for instance, giving their blessings to the resort to national security and the war power to push nuclear power (and related waste disposal) on states that do not want them (a tactic employed in the past and not uncommon today as well, especially in the case of nucear waste disposal [ask the people of Nevada]). It’s simply wrong to invoke ‘national security’ arguments in such an arbitrary manner, wedded to vested interests. Historically, government and industry suppression of information has often meant citizens have been unable to exercise anything truly on the order of ‘free and informed consent’ when it comes to the risks associated with nuclear power generation.

    Readers might also benefit from acquaintance with Daniel Greenberg’s Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (2001), although it does not deal with the nuclear power industry as such.

  4. James Aach says:

    I agree with some of what Mr. O’Donnell says above. A reasonably educated person without scientific/technical training can get a realistic grasp of the basics of nuclear power sufficient to make informed decisions. But there’s one very important caveat from may perspective– essentially it is practically impossible for a lay person at this time to learn the “real world” basics of nuclear power generation because the information is more difficult to attain that you might imagine. There are three major sources – government, propaganda from the two opposing sides, and journalistic reviews (which sometimes end up as propaganda). I read a lot of them – and they don’t present a clear or consistent picture at all, even when it comes down to the most basic factual elements. This is not to say that if everyone had a clear picture they would embrace nuclear power – it’s quite possible and rational to come to the opposite conclusion based on either societal or ethical concerns or technical considerations.

    (I’m also not sure there has been government or industry suppression of information on the civilian nuclear power industry as much as the fact that the documentation provided is dense and relatively meaningless to all but the initiated, and much of the human factors and ethics involved in the decision making process is not apparent. I suspect this may be true of many industries regulated by the government. It may depend on how one views “suppression”.)

    In my view, a problem arises when popular / political decisions are made in the absence of good information and perspective. I notice the issue in the energy field because that’s my area of expertise. As an example, a politician might endorse getting rid of the local large coal plant and replacing it with windmills. Does the public understand what that means in practical terms (probably several thousand large windmills combined with larger battery storage facilities than now exist)? Or do they think it’s an easy swap being prevented only by corporate interests and not by the state of technology today and the constraints of nature itself? If the public does have a clear picture of all the ramifications and wants to go ahead – fine.

    With nuclear you also must factor in “perceived risk” and whatever societal issues arise from it, and “actual risk” based on the best medical data available. With risk, you should also factor in “reward” (limited CO2 emissions, etc.) but those rewards may be on a broad societal scale whereas the risk is viewed as personal.

    The above example also shows why conservation should always be at the top of any energy plan. It’s simpler than anything else. Nature doesn’t play politics when it comes to energy – a lump of coal or a gust of wind has only so much power in it. Society can and should decide whether or not to use the power, but they can’t change how much is there to begin with. A megawatt of clean power may be “better” than ten megawatts of “dirty” power, but it is still ten times less powerful.

    As an aside, I’d also note it may not be widely recognized that decisions in the nuclear arena (and electric generation in general) are already made based on far more inputs than the purely technical. Internal government politics, political relationships between the industry and government, and societal concerns (whether technically based or otherwise) play a large part.

    To try and alleviate some of the information gap I’ve described above, I wrote the thriller novel “Rad Decision”. It serves as a good primer into the technical, political, and social aspects of electric energy in general and nuclear in particular in the United States. (There’s additional commentary at the web site as well if one wants to go further, or you’ll find the paperback’s reasonably priced and I get no royalties from it at this time.) I’ve tried to portray both the good and the bad. Comments at the home page indicate readers are also finding it entertaining.

    If we are going to make the best decisions about our energy future, we need to start by understanding our energy present. Reading Rad Decision is one step in that direction.

    See RadDecision.blogspot.com or go to online retailers, or just type “Rad Decision” on Google.