Hypatia Symposium – Climate Change Science & Responsible Trust: A Situated Approach by HEIDI GRASSWICK

Climate Change Science and Responsible Trust: A Situated Approach

hypatia_coverheidi_grasswickHEIDI GRASSWICK
Professor, Department of Philosophy, Middlebury College


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In a world rife with specialized knowledge, a responsible trust placed in other knowers or institutions of knowledge production is crucial to our capacity to know things ourselves. In the case of climate change science, the stakes of our trust or distrust are very high. Our beliefs about climate change shape both our behavior and policy development, and those beliefs are formed in part by the degree of trust we place in climate change science and the institutions that produce such science. Although the credibility of climate change science has received a good deal of attention recently, most of the discussion has adapted a generic approach to knowing, considering whether members of a generic public do and/or should trust the science.1 Here, I extend a feminist situated knowledge approach to the conditions of responsible trust and/or distrust in climate change science. As it has been developed and argued for by both standpoint theorists and epistemologists of ignorance, a situated approach to both knowing and ignorance takes seriously the idea that one’s social location both limits and shapes one’s knowing, and further argues that these shapings are often best understood by considering the lines of power that differentiate our social positions. My interest is not just in the presence of differential degrees of trust in climate change science across the public, but rather how we are to understand what constitutes good knowing and inquiry on behalf of particularly situated laypersons when matters of trust are involved. That is to say, there will always be cases of misplaced epistemic trust and distrust, and many laypersons will not be motivated to try to know well regarding certain issues. But for those who do seek to know well, an understanding of how positionality is implicated in matters of epistemic trust is important. Whereas feminist work on trust in science has focused on the marginalized and contexts of reasonable distrust in scientific institutions (Scheman 2001), here I focus on the implications of a situated approach for understanding trust and distrust from the position of the privileged using the case of climate change. There is evidence that white males in the United States are more likely to distrust or disavow climate science than are other demographic groups. On a situated approach, an assessment of whether such distrust could be a responsible distrust must consider the possible relevance of the privileged social location of white males. The logic of feminist standpoint theory and the epistemologies of ignorance suggests that a critical reflexivity of social position is required in order to produce knowledge well, and I argue that this insight holds as well in the case ofknowing through trust. If laypersons in privileged social locations are going to know well, there will be many contexts in which it will be important for them to consider the levels of trust that those in differently situated positions place in the science under examination.

The Credibility of Climate Science

Matters of trust permeate our interactions with scientific institutions and research communities of all sorts and at all levels, but there are certain features of climate change science that make it particularly vexing with respect to trust. Among these, it is exceptionally complex and operates within a context of uncertainty; it attempts to predict climates into the long-term future while accounting for yet unknown human responses to climate change. Additionally, as a global phenomenon, climate change is often not locally observable or easy to reconcile with laypersons’ local experiences, making its seriousness sometimes challenging to convey. Finally, climate change science has been identified as a paradigm case of “post-normal science” (Saloranta 2001; Hulme 2009). In contexts of post-normal science, the public does not simply expect science to produce factual answers to questions. Rather it expects to be able to apply the science to public issues under circumstances in which “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” (Funtowicz and Ravetz1993). Post-normal science presents particular challenges for laypersons, who must find ways to responsibly trust scientific institutions, since the boundaries between the knowledge produced and policy implications begin to blur and with that, political interests play a prominent role in the development and presentation of the knowledge.

For feminist epistemologists interested in knowledge-based trust issues, climate change science is also a particularly interesting and challenging case to examine for additional reasons: the cornerstone of feminist epistemologies has been the adoption of a situated approach to knowing, that is, recognizing that one’s knowledge possibilities are shaped and limited by particular social locations (Grasswick 2011). Alison Wylie has argued further that to understand exactly how and when social location makes a difference to particular knowledge endeavors, we must examine them contextually (Wylie 2003). The context of climate change is interesting to consider through a situated approach because it is both global and locally differentiated. On the one hand, it can be considered maximally global because it is a crisis argued to have significance for everyone, including future generations and nonhuman life. This suggests that with respect to climate change we human beings may share a certain “global location.” On the other hand, it is well recognized that the actual problem of climate change will likely affect certain groups of people, particularly the globally marginalized, more significantly and more rapidly than others, positioning people differently as stakeholders. Indeed, much of the recent work on gender and climate change has focused on how many women in the world may have a higher vulnerability to the early repercussions of climate change because of their relative lack of power in a patriarchal world (Denton 2002; Terry 2009). Interests also differ across social location in terms of how much one has to lose if early mitigation measures for climate change are adopted. I am interested in how we humans might be differently situated with respect to how we confront the science of climate change, and what a situated approach can contribute to understanding responsible knowing practices in this case.2

Attitudes and Levels of Trust in Climate Change Science: The White Male Effect

There has been much lament over the apparent disconnect between the level of consensus among climate scientists and the public’s level of trust in the “facts” of climate science. This is especially so in the United States, where the public’s views do not match the views of the experts very well. The top scientists working on climate change are in broad agreement that anthropogenic climate change is happening and that it is a serious problem (Oreskes 2004). The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” (with “very likely” being defined as over 90% probability) (IPCC 2007). The IPCC has been called “one of the most inclusive and transparent exercises in international science consensus building the world has ever seen” (Jasanoff 2011, 130) with over 2,000 contributing scientists. Moreover, a recent study found that only 2% of the top 50 climate researchers, as ranked by expertise, were unconvinced by the evidence for climate change (Anderegg et al. 2010). Yet when it comes to public perceptions of climate change, the situation is quite different.

According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, in 2012 only 66% of Americans believed global warming is happening, with only 46% saying that if global warming is happening, it is caused mostly by human activities (Yale Project 2012).3 Furthermore, only 35% of Americans agreed that most scientists think global warming is happening, whereas 41% say there is “a lot of disagreement” among scientists whether or not global warming is happening. Though survey results fluctuate somewhat, what remains steady is the fact that the public belief in anthropogenic climate change lags well behind the consensus of the climate change scientific community.

Although this literature gives a general sense of the disconnect between the beliefs of climate change scientists (the experts) and the public in the United States, a situated approach suggests the importance of investigating the possibility of social differences in beliefs in and trust of climate change science. Interestingly, empirical research has shown a statistically significant gender gap in the belief in and concern with global warming. Prominent in this area is the work of Aaron M. McCright, who has found that American women have a higher level of knowledge with respect to the facts about climate change, and a higher level of concern than do men about climate change. Analysis of eight years of Gallup polls shows that a greater percentage of women than men believe global warming is happening now (59% to 54%) and is primarily caused by human activities (64% to 56%). More American women than men worry about global warming a great deal (35% to 29%), believe global warming will threaten their way of life during their lifetime (37% to 28%), and believe the seriousness of global warming is underestimated in the news (35% to 28%) (McCright 2010). This gender gap is statistically significant and consistent over time (McCright 2010), though as McCright notes it is not overwhelming in size compared with such characteristics as party affiliation, with Republicans much more likely to be skeptical of the presence of global warming and its links to human activities (see Dunlap and McCright 2008).4

But the story becomes more interesting when McCright’s results are considered in combination with other angles of research concerningwhite men. For example, in considering relationships between values and environmental outlooks (a much broader category than simply climate change) Linda Kalof, Thomas Dietz, Gregory Guagnano, and Paul C. Stern found that the values and beliefs of white men were “substantially different” from those of the other subgroups studied (black women and men, Hispanic women and men, and white women). “White men placed substantially less importance on altruism, self-interest, and traditionalism than did White women, and White men were less likely than White women to endorse proenvironmental beliefs” (Kalof et al. 2002, 122). Interpreting their results, they suggest that “the key variable associated with environmentalism and altruism may be membership in the most advantaged social structural or cultural group in the society, rather than race or gender per se” (122). This suspicion is consistent with feminist epistemological arguments that the relevance of social location to epistemic pursuits depends most prominently on contingent and complex intertwining social systems of privilege and disadvantage and is not dependent on there being inherent differences in epistemic capacities of different groups. It is differences in social privilege that are of primary interest to feminist epistemologists, and that serve as the focal point for this paper.

There is now a substantial body of research demonstrating what has been termed the “white-male effect”: the tendency for white males to perceive risk as much lower than do other demographic groups. Recalling that climate change is a prime example of post-normal science, in which there are high stakes, high uncertainty, and a close connection between the demands for knowledge and the demands for policy, these findings of low risk perception in white males are important in understanding the dynamics of climate change belief and trust. The white-male effect was discovered when researchers found that across twenty-five hazard items, including climate change (and many other environmental hazards), white males consistently perceived the risks of these hazards as lower than other groups did (Flynn, Slovic, and Mertz 1994). More interesting still, they found that the significant difference between white males and others was accounted for by a sub-group consisting of about 30% of the white male subjects. This sub-group had very low risk-perception scores, and were differentiated from other white males in terms of being better educated, having higher household incomes, and being politically more conservative (Slovic 1999). This has come to be known by some as the “conservative white male effect.” Furthermore, strong evidence has been found for a conservative white male effect on climate change denial (McCright and Dunlap 2011).

Explanations from social psychology for the conservative white male effect on risk perception in general and climate change denial in particular has focused on two complementary theses. The first, the identity-protective cognition thesis, draws on the work of cultural cognition, according to which subjects’ cognition is oriented according to their cultural worldviews. Specifically, cultural cognition theorists divide cultural worldviews along two axes: hierarchical versus egalitarian orientations, and individualistic versus communitarian orientations, arguing that one’s cultural worldview affects how one receives information. In the case of risk perception, these cultural worldviews interact with the impact of race and gender, such that the white-male effect on risk perception results in part from those white men who hold hierarchical and individualistic worldviews (Kahan et al. 2007). The thesis of identity-protective cognition suggests an explanation: subjects exhibit a kind of motivated cognition that “serves to protect the status and self-esteem that individuals receive from group membership” (McCright and Dunlap 2011, 1165). For hierarchical, individualistic, white males, environmental risk and climate change risk would threaten their group’s activities and beliefs with the possibility of environmental regulation, making them more likely to take positions of risk skepticism, or outright climate change denial (McCright and Dunlap 2011). The second thesis offered as a partial explanation of the white-male effect is the system-justifying attitude thesis, according to which conservatives have stronger tendencies than liberals to justify and defend the current social and economic system, resisting change to the status quo (Jost et al. 2008). As McCright and Dunlap note, “conservative white males are likely to favor protection of the current industrial capitalist order which has historically served them well” (McCright and Dunlap 2011, 1165). These two theses complement the more theoretical arguments of many feminist epistemologists who point out the ways in which those occupying privileged social positions may have difficulties recognizing features of oppression and exploitation because they are invested in the system being and remaining as it is. In the case of climate change, they may have difficulties recognizing the threat and the need for mitigation efforts, given that they both have much to lose by such mitigation efforts that threaten current social structures that serve the privileged well, and they are the least vulnerable to the immediate effects of climate change.

To say that a group (white men) are more likely to be climate change deniers, or to perceive the risk of climate change as lower than others do, is not quite the same thing as claiming that they have a lower level of trust in the institutions that are producing this knowledge and conveying it, though there is obviously a close link. For example, one survey by the Brookings Institution found that of those who do not think that global warming is occurring, eight out of ten also believe that “scientists are overstating evidence about global warming for their own interest.” In contrast, of those who do believe global warming is occurring, only three out of ten believe scientists are overstating the case to serve their interests (Borick and Rabe 2012). Some have argued that in the highly politicized and public space in which climate change discussions occur, laypersons actually experience a “bifurcated flow of information” consisting of roughly two camps: those who argue for the seriousness of climate change and its human causes, including many natural scientists (such as the IPCC members), environmental advocacy groups, and some Democratic party politicians, and those who are skeptical of the reality, seriousness, and human causes of climate change, including certain contrarian scientists, several right-wing advocacy groups, some Republican politicians, and several conservative media personalities (Malka, Krosnick, and Langer 2009).5 When laypersons are faced with such a “bifurcated flow of information” they are likely to rely on those sources they trust most, rejecting the information from the other flow (Malka, Krosnick, and Langer 2009). Those who rely on the climate skeptics for their information are in essence distrusting the mainstream institutions of climate change science by rejecting their climate change information in favor of information provided by the other flow of information.

The empirical work on the white-male effect and trust when faced with a bifurcated flow of information suggests that the story of how social location affects people’s trust in climate change science is complex, and I submit that we should expect nothing less given the variety of ways in which the claims of climate change can interact with our other beliefs, values, and practices, alongside our structures of knowledge production and dissemination. But the evidence suggesting that white men are at least more likely to distrust climate change science than are other demographic groups, coupled with the connections drawn between positions of privilege and patterns of trust and belief, motivates my next question of what feminist analyses of situated knowing can offer to an understanding of the parameters of responsible lay knowing from positions of social privilege.

6 thoughts on “Hypatia Symposium – Climate Change Science & Responsible Trust: A Situated Approach by HEIDI GRASSWICK”

  1. Heidi Grasswick’s discussion of the ways “one’s social location both limits and shapes one’s knowing” (542) helpfully explains how the privileged position of white males is linked to their tendency to “perceive [climate change] risk as much lower than do other demographic groups” (545). She draws on social psychology to find two complementary theses for the “conservative white male effect”: the “identity-protective cognition thesis” and the “system-justifying attitude thesis” (545). In both, conservative white males tend to be more hierarchical than egalitarian, more individualistic than communitarian, and more invested in maintaining the status quo, a system which benefits white males, giving them much to lose, and buffering them from the immediate effects of climate change.

    Grasswick’s literature review confirms that U.S. women have a higher level of knowledge and concern about climate change, whereas men are more likely to trust climate denialists. Seeking explanations beyond social privilege, she looks at the conservative media (i.e. Fox News), fossil-fuel funded think tanks, and other sources of misinformation that work to confuse the public, foster doubt, and argue for “balanced” coverage of climate science. To combat the “bifurcated flow of information” (546) Grasswick argues for strategies of “responsible inquiry” available to any high school graduate, and a “critical reflexivity” that involves awareness and “investigation into how one’s positionality is shaping one’s knowing (and one’s ignorances)” (553).
    But what would motivate privileged knowers from adopting this critical reflexivity if their cultural standpoint were hierarchical and individualistic? And moreover, how do we explain why women more readily believe climate science’s predictions for climate change impacts, when these women have no reason to trust climate science, according to Grasswick?

    My second question emerges from Grasswick’s discussion of Naomi Scheman (2001), who argues that “marginalized groups often have good reason to distrust scientific institutions that they know to be unjust and with whom they have had a difficult epistemic history” (548). Scheman gives three reasons why marginalized communities might distrust science: when there has been “a history of exclusion from scientific communities,” when “poor-quality research on those questions directly related to the lives of the marginalized” has been produced, and when the marginalized have been abused as research subjects. These three characteristics describe the relation of women around the world when it comes to climate science, as this special issue’s editors exclaim in their Introduction: despite “a virtual explosion of work on gender and climate change… and a vocal and visible activist movement calling attention to the fact the climate justice requires gender justice … gender has been virtually ignored”—not just in books on climate change and climate justice, but in “international negotiations and policy-making at the highest levels.” Yet, women overwhelmingly believe climate scientists’ predictions. Why?

    Perhaps women’s standpoint on climate change is not a misplaced “trust,” but rather a view emerging from a nexus of cultural standpoints–more egalitarian than hierarchical, more communitarian than individualistic, more likely to hold environmental values, and less privileged so less invested in maintaining the status quo or its artificially-produced identity of the Master (Plumwood 1993). In fact, a Harris Interactive Poll (2009) reports that GLBT persons tend to share women’s standpoint on climate change and climate science, as do other marginalized communities around the world, suggesting that climate science may confirm what less privileged people are already observing in our environments: severe weather, unseasonable changes in temperature and precipitation, species migrations and species losses, food shortages, and more. Bringing together the lived experiences of marginalized communities with the predictions of climate scientists does not require trust, unless it is in one’s own ability to enact the “critical reflexivity” aspect of feminist epistemology that concludes Grasswick’s provocative article.

    –Greta Gaard, Professor, Dept. of English, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

    1. Greta Gaard raises some important and challenging questions concerning my argument in this recent special issue of Hypatia. She asks what would motivate men to engage in critical reflexivity if they have are hierarchically and individualistically oriented. It is true of course, that many will not be so motivated, at the same time as I think it is reasonable to argue that in many epistemic contexts, an attitude of critical reflexivity may be required for responsible inquiry. Cultural cognition poses a challenge to responsible inquiry (and this applies to all situated knowers, not just those who are hierarchically and individually inclined), but as Elizabeth Anderson argues, although it may at times make responsible inquiry difficult, it does not make it impossible (Anderson 21011). Additionally, it seems to me that even a very hierarchically and individually oriented person will find that they have difficulty knowing much in the world without engaging with, and at times trusting others. Such dependencies lead us to form relationships with other inquirers with different perspectives—perspectives that require negotiating as we seek to understand the world. (For example, one might ask “why does this person think differently from me when they too seem to be relatively successful at figuring out the world?”). This opens the door to critical reflexivity. There may of course be particular areas of knowing where there is more resistance to engaging in critical reflexivity, and for some, climate change might be one of those. The interesting feature of the cultural cognition literature as it pertains to climate change specifically is that it connects how one receives information about climate change with the resistance a person who is hierarchically and individually inclined might have to solutions to climate change, such as the need for regulation. Here, there might only be small pockets of connection with others that stimulate a degree of critical reflexivity. Some of these pockets might even come from within a privileged sector of society. Differing degrees of trust expressed in climate change science amongst the privileged (and fortunately, there are differing degrees of trust evident here), might stimulate one to engage in more critical reflexivity. One example might be a white male climate change denier who notices that members of the insurance industry, who share with this individual similar privilege, do appear to be taking the concerns of climate change seriously. “What’s with that?” he might be motivated to ask himself.

      Secondly Gaard asks why women would trust the climate change scientists given that she finds that my argument suggests that they have no reason to trust science. As a point of clarification, I do not hold that women have “no reason to trust science” and of course, following a situated approach we would do well to look to differentially situated women in our attempts to understand patterns of trust and distrust throughout a population as well as the reasons available for trust and distrust. The literature I cite is U.S. specific in its research, with only some of it delving into distinctions between differently situated U.S. women. Both of these features set limits on how broadly we should interpret the findings. However, as Gaard points out, I do follow in Scheman’s footsteps by arguing that a history of poor relations with scientific communities can offer reasons to distrust those communities and I agree that women have had a troubled history with some scientific communities and the trajectories of their research that can give reasons for distrust. But one thing I did not deal with in the paper concerns the boundaries of the communities with which we form trust or distrust—a very important parameter to take up. A troubled history with the medical research community for example, may not translate into reasons for distrust of the communities of climate change science from one’s situated location if an inquirer can discern relevant distinctions between their histories and one’s situated relationship with these communities. (In cases of severe marginalization however, I do think it is possible for distrust to reasonably travel from its target from one scientific community to the next).

      Finally, Gaard interestingly and provocatively suggests that perhaps women’s greater awareness of and belief in climate change is not a result of trust in the science of climate change, but rather the result of inferences from their own values and localized experiences of climate change effects. I agree that one’s experiences and local knowledge are important inputs in one’s assessment of climate change, and all too often the institutions of science ignore the contributions of the “non-experts” that could prove very valuable sources of understanding. However, given the complexities of how climate change manifests itself in “on the ground” weather patterns, (i.e. not consistently at all, and sometimes in very unexpected ways within local areas) I think the patterns of greater awareness of and belief in climate change amongst women are not well explained by local experiences alone. At the same time, if women are among those most vulnerable to some of the effects of climate change, they will very likely experience its early effects first. Such experiences offer important evidence for the phenomenon of climate change.

      If we are to develop our understanding of climate change more, and figure out the best solutions to the growing problem, we absolutely need to foster relations of (responsibly-formed) trust across various institutions, communities, and local inquirers. Sound understandings of climate change cannot be generated on the basis of local experiences alone.

      Heidi Grasswick

      1. Thanks to Heidi Grasswick for this thoughtful reply, clarifying views shared by many environmental feminists–and thanks to Chris Cuomo and Nancy Tuana for providing us with this forum for discussion, that helps draw out the finer points of these essays.

  2. The “white male effect” (Flynn, Slovic, and Mertz 1994) and the “conservative white male effect” (McCright and Dunlap 2011), uncovered as significant factors contributing to our overall paralysis with respect to climate change, probably represent tips of a very large iceberg (which I have come to consider under the heading of “our social ontology”) that blocks our ability to make many necessary changes in our shared social fabric. Heidi Grasswick is to be thanked for bringing these issues to our attention and subjecting them to feminist analysis.

    The “thesis of identity-protective cognition” is a key finding here; as Grasswick tells us, it “suggests an explanation: subjects exhibit a kind of motivated cognition that ‘serves to protect the status and self-esteem that individuals receive from group membership’ (McCright and Dunlap 2011, 1165).” Engaging in some reflexivity should allow us to appreciate the considerable extent to which issues of “group membership,” chosen and unchosen, influence (and limit?) the degree to which we, as feminists, philosophers, and academics more generally, let ourselves think and speak freely (to say nothing of choosing to act differently) with respect to many currently pressing concerns, not the least of them being climate change.

  3. Heidi Grasswick explains why (some) white males may lack the critical reflexivity required to develop a fair and prudent assessment of the science supporting climate change. Among other reasons, people are more likely to accept findings that are in line with their interests unless they use careful techniques to account for their own biases. We sometimes hear the blame placed on scientists and science writers for not making climate science accessible. But this article shifts the focus to the role of the media. Indeed, this year a colleague in my philosophy department, Larry Torcello, was subjected to unreasonable complaints, even calling for him to be fired, because people had read FOXNews coverage which misquoted a blog post he had written. One thing I take away from this article is an acknowledgement of the importance of our critical thinking classes, where we teach techniques for responsible knowing.

  4. I think you are absolutely right that these arguments speak to the importance of teaching critical thinking skills to our students. What I think needs to be emphasized is that our ability to inquire well, especially on a topic as complex and politically important as climate change, depends crucially on a multitude of institutions working well: institutions of scientific research, media institutions, governmental agencies, and educational institutions. Just as individual knowers depend on each other, these institutions depend on each other to be able to successfully fulfill their own social roles of knowledge generation and dissemination.

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