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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 2 (1995)

RESPONSE TO REVIEW OF Environmental Values in American Culture. Reviewed by


Willett Kempton, Senior Policy Scientist, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy, University of Delaware.

The reviewer has read the book carefully and offers a detailed evaluation. He lists the major cultural models we found--a good summary I wish we'd thought to include in the book. I appreciate his approval of our course of study: "the idea of, and empirical search for, cultural models associated with the environment and nature is to be applauded..." Beyond those points, however, the review's heavy mortar and rocket attacks seem mostly aimed in the wrong directions.

The review leads by challenging the book for adopting the "mantra" of global environmental change. This is an odd criticism--whether or not environmental change is occurring is marginally relevant to our study of lay people's beliefs and values about environmental change. Given that the reviewer is so concerned with the correctness of predictions of climate change (by climatologists, not by our book), it is curious to find indicators suggesting that the reviewer may not even be familiar with the relevant literature. For example, the critic S. Fred Singer is referred to as "S. Fred Smith", and the reviewer admits having "no idea" whether global warming would occur during a decade or a century.

Next, the review criticizes our use of physical science in a more fundamental way, taking a radically relativist position on the use of physical science by social scientists. By including in our interview a summary of the scientific findings on global climate change, the review contends, we have "introduced systematic bias", and the research "borders on the unethical"--strong language. He likens our presentation of scientific research findings to a hypothetical interview of Southern Paiute people, in which the researcher tells informants that, according to scientists, the spirits they believe in do not exist. Two flaws in this unusual criticism stand out.

First, we were not aware that our American informants had deeply held religious beliefs about environmental change. We invoked scientists' authority to say that, for example, fossil fuels create more greenhouse gases than do spray cans (with CFCs). Does the reviewer seriously believe that we have disturbed American systems of religion and myth? If such issues are really serious "ethical" concerns of the reviewer, we suggest that he begin this ethical crusade by trying to remove evolution from biology textbooks. By the reviewer's criterion, there would be much more serious ethical problems in telling fundamentalist children that scientists believe in evolution.

The second flaw is that the review is misleading. It suggests--without saying explicitly--that we biased our answers by presenting information in a briefing, then asking questions about the same information. Had this been our design, the National Science Foundation never would have funded the project, and the book manuscript never would have passed peer review at MIT Press. In fact, the sequence of our interviews was: first, we got uncontaminated data, second we gave a briefing, third we asked questions that didn't make sense unless the informant knew the information in the briefing (about global climate change). Rather than introducing "bias", this interview sequence makes it possible to ask sensible and comparable questions about policy preferences, despite the informants' wide variety of background knowledge about the phenomena in question.

Another large set of criticisms are methodological. Many of these methodological criticisms will be familiar to any ethnographic researcher who has been reviewed by a survey researcher, criticisms of: our sampling, sample size, wording of questions, etc. Others are just odd, for example, that we should have divided our qualitative interview sample before extracting cultural models (as explicit verbalization of cultural models is rare, we would have averaged fewer than one response per group--hardly a good basis for comparison).

Answering the review's methodological criticisms point-by-l point, we feel, would try the patience of most readers of this journal. In some cases he is right--for example, had we the luxury of more time and money, we would have preferred to cover the US public with a proper national sample. In most cases, however, he is missing the point. The reason for using semistructured interviewing, or ethnographic methods, is that the researcher suspects that the respondents view the world in very different ways from the researchers, and are capable of telling about their views. This strategy pa d off-- we found some rather surprising differences in the way experts and voters see several environmental issues.

In some ways, the most telling criticism of the review is that this volume is consistent with "books written by people funded by NSF, NOAA and NASA." With slurs like this, who needs compliments? We are glad to have our work compared with some of the best researchers in this area--whether physical science or social science. We are pleased to have made a small contribution to putting social science on the platform with the natural sciences, taking a serious part in understanding human dimensions of environmental change. We're guilty as charged.