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Perception of Expertise Culturally Biased

5 April 2011
This is old news—originally written for a graduate class at the University of Colorado in September, 2010. I’m publishing it here, now, because I think it’s well-written and fits the theme of this blog.

What credentials make a scientist an “expert”? Advanced degrees? Years of experience? Dozens of peer-reviewed papers? Put it all together and, according to a new [as of 13 Sept, 2010] study, you still may not be able to convince anyone that you know what you’re talking about.

Researchers from several U.S. universities, working with the National Science Foundation, found that most people consider a scientist an “expert” only if that scientist shares their cultural beliefs. For instance, individualistic people tend to be skeptical of climate change risks, and are over 70% more likely to consider a scientist who shares that skepticism an expert. Similarly, egalitarians tend to think there are risks from climate change, and are over 50% more likely to consider a like-minded scientist an expert. Moreover, the perception of scientific consensus is also colored by cultural biases.

“The problem isn’t that one side ‘believes’ science and another side ‘distrusts’ it,” according to Yale University law professor Dan Kahan, a co-author of the study. People simply pay more attention to science that agrees with them. “To make sure people form unbiased perceptions” of scientific discoveries, Kahan thinks findings need to be communicated in ways that are not “threatening to their cultural commitments.”

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