Education & Sci Comm

Ruminating on a Kentucky farmer

(Sorry about the pastoral pun. I hope you can stomach it. *ahem*)

Dan Kahan, whose research into how the public comes to form opinions on scientific issues reveals the huge importance of our cultural identity and network, has been doing a lot of thinking about a couple enigmatic archetypes: the “Pakistani Doctor” and the “Kentucky Farmer”. (I won’t try to give the entire backstory here, but you can find it via this post.) The Pakistani Doctor, encountered through interviews by researcher Salman Hameed, professes to find evolution important and true in the context of medicine, but rejects human evolution as antithetical to his/her Muslim faith. The Kentucky Farmer, on the other hand, accepts that the climate is changing and alters his farming accordingly, even as he rejects the scientific conclusion that humans are responsible for climate change.

So are these people holding contradictory notions inside their head? How are we to understand their thinking? Dan’s point, as spelled out in the post linked above, boils down to this: these people see no contradiction, and they tell us that the difference between the “evolution” they believe and the “evolution” they disbelieve is context. It’s the cultural relevance. We may be tempted to say, “Yes, but the context is irrelevant— the thing is either true or it is not,” but perhaps we only say that because we successfully pretend that we don’t do the exact same thing. So, in Dan’s view, evolution as it applies to medicine is literally a different concept than evolution as it relates to religious beliefs, and that’s all we need to know to resolve this apparent contradiction. Again, read Dan’s post to flesh this out (and in case I’m poorly representing his argument).

Now, I largely find this insightful and interesting, but a bit of it has continued to stick in my craw, which I promised Dan I would elaborate. I’m going to focus on the Kentucky Farmer. I agree that we should take this farmer at his word when he (implicitly) says that “climate change” with respect to his farm is simply different than “climate change” as it relates to the liberal/conservative point of contention. However, I think stopping there over-reduces what’s going on. The two ideas (of “climate change”), arrived at through the cultural network, come as packets with specific factual baggage. The ideas can differ in content as well as cultural relevance— and if you sit down with the Kentucky Farmer for a beer, I contend it’s highly likely he can tell you all about it. Dan has, of course, thought of this, but seems to have framed it more as a competing hypothesis that comes with rejection of what you might call the “cultural context hypothesis”. I want to push back on that, and argue that this point cannot be left out if you want to fully understand what’s going on.

I’ll rely on my personal experience with the Wisconsin farmer, as I think I’m justified in believing these attitudes to be broadly shared. The Wisconsin farmer has also noticed the unusual weather of recent years, and attests that the current climate differs from the one his father worked with. So yes, you’d better believe he’s willing to adjust his practices. And no, he’s not willing to pin this change on human activities— he finds that hard to believe, so who really knows? And besides, he knows the weather is an unpredictable beast prone to mood swings. Things go up, and things go down, and that’s just how it works. It’s been warmer and drier lately, and someday it will probably be cooler and wetter again. Everything goes in cycles, you know? He’s happy to plan for next summer based on the last ten, because what else can you do?

The “climate change” he rejects isn’t just the liberal variety (context), it’s also different (content).  That climate change is the result of SUVs, coal power plants, and is supposedly going to get warmer and warmer and warmer until there’s some kind of doomsday, according to Al Gore. Here’s the key: ask him what he thinks the climate will be like in 60 years. Does he need to make changes to his farm to ensure his kids’ success? I can almost guarantee he’ll say, “Oh, who knows, maybe warmer, maybe cooler. I wouldn’t get too carried away.” If he truly accepted the reality of climate change as it relates to agriculture, he wouldn’t hesitate to bank on further warming, but that’s not what the “climate change” he accepts means to him. (Might he deny that “global warming” is a synonymous label for his “climate change”?) These things are factually distinct.

This will exhibit itself in his policy preferences. He may support policy that helps farmers adapt to (cyclical, unpredictable) climate change. He will not support policy that actually addresses the cause and mitigates it, because he doesn’t believe in that kind of climate change.

So while I think it’s really useful to consider the fact that we can think differently about a concept if it occurs in multiple contexts, I think we have to wrestle with the fact that in some cases these concepts will be sculpted into distinct things— either by our own reasoning or via our cultural network. Dan has written that it can be almost condescending to decree that the Kentucky Farmer is contradicting himself, and to demand a solution to his foolish paradox. However, I think it can also be condescending to stop him when he gives us one reason why he doesn’t feel he’s contradicting himself— he may not be done explaining things he has put a lot of thought into. I don’t think what I’ve outlined above superficially “explains away the paradox”, as Dan put it, any more than the “cultural context hypothesis” does so. It’s just digging far enough into the details to be sure we understand what the Kentucky Farmer is telling us.

I don’t think we can really celebrate the Kentucky Farmer’s willingness to accept “climate change” as it relates to his normal, everyday business, because he’s not accepting the same facts we’re concerned about. We may find it illustrative to discover how his “climate change” has been sculpted to become culturally palatable, though. Why is he willing to accept those facts/beliefs? We can come up with plenty of plausible reasons. (Perhaps human/divine control of nature, perhaps opposition to regulations on markets or government control, etc.)

However, we shoudn’t expect that he will necessarily be amenable to our version of “climate change”, given the right context. Context may not be the only thing that allowed his “climate change” to pass through the cultural filter.