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Speaker Series: “The Science of Communication” Featuring Dan Kahan

On November 2 at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, DC, the Communications Network and Spitfire Strategies kicked off our “Science of Communication” series — free lectures, webinars and webcasts designed to examine communications through a scientific lens — with a presentation by Dan Kahan, Professor of Law and Psychology at Yale University.

As a member of Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project, Professor Kahan examines how our cultural values shape our beliefs and perceptions of risk. The Project explores public disputes over science on a wide range of issues, from the HPV vaccine to gun control to emerging technologies. Kahan discussed why “scientific consensus” often doesn’t settle disputes around issues like climate change or the death penalty and what actually influences the decision-making process.

Listen to Professor Kahan talk about what’s called “protective cognition” and why we tend to accept information that reinforces what we already believe and dismiss information that would require us to change our minds. Professor Kahan explains that it’s actually a very rational thing to do: Why would we want to drive a wedge between ourselves and our peers when instead we could filter out information that conflicts with our beliefs and values?

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On culturally polarized issues (like climate change, gun control or counter-terrorism), people take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from what Professor Kahan says the “cheers and boos of the home crowd”.  Listen to Professor Kahan talk about the phenomenon of  “motivated reasoning” and a famous 1950s psychology experiment:

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One theory about why we dispute the “science” of an argument is what Professor Kahan calls the “public irrationality” thesis. That is, people don’t understand science or are easily misled and that’s what causes controversy and a lack of concern.  In fact, the opposite is true.  As people become more science literate, they become less concerned:

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If people don’t believe your facts, are they anti-science?
No – they just disagree about what the scientific consensusis on a polarized issue. Listen to Professor Kahan talk about a study they conducted where they constructed arguments in favor and against an issue and matched them with fictional male experts:

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How can you apply these insights to improve your communications?
According to Professor Kahan, you should present your information in a way that confirms, rather than threatens, someone’s values. And ensure your information is vouched for by a diverse set of experts. Listen to Professor Kahan’s suggestions on how we can resolve these culturally grounded differences:

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Full recording of Professor Kahan’s talk:

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For invitations to future “Science of Communication” presentations, email


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