Synthesis produced by the Fondation Descartes of the following research paper:
Kahan, D. M. (2017). Misconceptions, misinformation, and the logic of identity-protective cognition.
Kahan, Dan M. (2015) What Is the « Science of Science Communication »? Journal of Science Communication, 14(3), 1-10.
This 2017 article is a preparatory work proposed by social scientist Dan Kahan to present his theory of “identity-protective cognition”. The idea is simple: individuals would tend to elaborate arguments primarily to defend the opinions of the cultural group with which they identify rather than to seek the truth. This theory is greatly debated because it has important implications for current debates on scientific communication, on the possibility of improving the quality of public debate and on the success of fake news.
Kahan's theory is based on a fundamental premise: reasoning is based less on seeking truth than on what he calls “culture”. “Culture”, in this theory, refers to the set of beliefs, opinions and representations that shape the way in which the individual perceives the world and society. Individuals who share common representations form a “cultural” or “identity group”. For the individual, the core common beliefs of his or her group are an essential aspect of his or her identity - it must therefore be defended at all cost.
To support his theory, Kahan describes an experiment he conducted with his colleagues in 2011. In this experiment, participants were confronted with an “expert” perspective on a divisive issue in American society: climate change. The expert could present two different arguments on climate change: (1) there is a scientific consensus on global warming; (2) it is premature and exaggerated to say that there is a scientific consensus on the issue. The results are clear: the more conservative and Republican (in the American sense of the term) the participants' opinions, the more likely they are to discredit the expert who presents the first argument. On the contrary, these conservative participants tend to assert that the individual presenting the second argument is indeed a climate expert. When liberal participants (still in the American sense of the term) evaluate the expert based on his or her argument, the answers given are almost symmetrically opposed to those of the conservative participants. Individuals would thus maintain an ideological, rather than factual, relationship with scientific expertise.
Kahan also shows that the perception of risk related to climate change is influenced by the cognitive background of the participants, but in a way that may seem paradoxical: the more scientific knowledge the participants possess, the more their opinions on global warming tend towards the extreme of their partisan affiliation. Thus, democrats with good scientific knowledge are the participants who see the greatest risk in climate disruption. On the other hand, Republicans with the most scientific knowledge are also those who tend to most believe that global warming presents a low risk.
Kahan maintains that these results are surprising only if we assume that when considering divisive issues, we use our reason to seek the truth. But, for Kahan, this assumption is wrong. In reality, we would first and foremost use our reasoning to defend opinions to which we are deeply attached.
In light of his theory of “identity-protective cognition,” Kahan analyses the results of another study by Allcott and Gentzkow (summarized on this site). In this study, the two authors report on the emergence and success of media outlets specialized in the dissemination of fake news, enabled by consumers' appetite for information that is consistent with their opinions, regardless of its truth value. For Kahan, the online media environment is organized around a "motivated audience": individuals seek information that is consistent with their beliefs, and opportunistic media outlets give them what they want to hear, without any regard for journalistic standards. It also means that fake news do not change people's opinions. For instance, in Allcott and Gentzkow’s study, the people who consumed pro-republican fake news were likely to have already chosen their candidate for the 2016 presidential election.
This instrumentalization of science and information, to the benefit of ideology, could discourage those who believe that science can guide opinions towards greater objectivity. Kahan does not share this view. Rather, he argues for a fundamental change in scientific communication. If the debate is so polarized today, it is, from the point of view of cultural defence theory, because certain issues are critical to clearly established ideological positions. Kahan therefore believes that scientific communication should be depoliticized, such that it is no longer perceived as a threat by the various groups that make up American society. He then proposes, in a second article, a method of scientific communication to present the objective elements of scientific results without them openly challenging the identity of a cultural group.
In conclusion, we point out that there is a series of articles discussing the relevance of Kahan's thesis on fake news. These articles argue that gullibility in the face of fake news is independent of ideology and is rather due to well-identified cognitive mechanisms.