Even when it comes to the most objective source of information there is — science — people can’t be objective.
Rather, there is overwhelming evidence that we are “biased information processors” who engage in “motivated reasoning” to try to bend facts about the world to comport with what we want to believe. And research has shown that even how people think about science is not immune to this — with a classic example being Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), pictured above, bringing a snowball into Congress during the 2015 winter to challenge climate change evidence.
Indeed, it has been often demonstrated that Democrats and Republicans (or, liberals and conservatives), as they become increasingly science-literate and educated, tend to be become more polarized over whether global warming is even a real thing or worth worrying about, with Democrats embracing established science ever more strongly and Republicans more doggedly rejecting it. This is, to make a long story short, probably because smart and educated people are better at arguing and reinforcing their own point of view.
But now, one of the researchers who has duly documented this very polarization over science — Yale’s Dan Kahan — reports that he may have found a cure: simple science curiosity.
The finding emerged out of research on documentary science films, which was aimed at determining how to make them engaging, and to whom they appealed. “It just so happened that, when we looked at the characteristics of these people, they seemed to be distinct politically,” Kahan said. They stood out by being, as a group, less likely to feed the current polarization of political opinion on scientific matters such as climate change.
“The data we’ve collected furnish a strong basis for viewing science curiosity as an important individual difference in cognitive style that interacts in a distinctive way with political information processing,” notes the new paper presenting experimental evidence to this end, which Kahan published with colleagues from Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and Tangled Bank Studios. The study is slated to be published in Advances in Political Psychology.
The research wouldn’t have been possible without first determining some way to measure what science curiosity actually is. Kahan and his colleagues have developed a psychological instrument — in research parlance, a “scale” — that gets at this by determining whether people had read books about science, attended science events, or were inclined to read science news over other types of news.
People with this disposition, based on the research, also enjoyed watching science-focused documentaries of the PBS variety — proving that the scale measures what it is supposed to. They are also more likely to be scientifically literate and good at scientific reasoning. Nonetheless, this is not what makes them stand out. It really is their fascination with science itself that does so.
Armed with the scientific curiosity scale, Kahan’s new study first demonstrated that while liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans with higher levels of proficiency in scientific thinking (which he calls “ordinary science intelligence”) tend to become more polarized and divided over the scientifically supported risks involved in both climate change and fracking, Democrats and Republicans with higher levels of science curiosity don’t. Rather, for both groups, the more curious they are, the more their perceptions of the risks tend to increase (although Republicans never become nearly as worried about either subject as Democrats do).
Here’s a figure from the study showing this result:
The data were quite similar when it came to how Democrats and Republicans feel about whether climate change is caused by humans. Again, the scientifically curious ones didn’t show the standard effect of polarizing over the evidence — rather, with more science curiosity, members of both groups became more convinced of human-caused climate change.
Finally, the study also contained an experiment, demonstrating that being possessed of heightened levels of scientific curiosity appeared to make political partisans more likely to read scientific information that went against their predilections.
In the experiment, Democrats and Republicans — who were either high or low on science curiosity — were randomly assigned to choose a story to read about climate change, and had to do so based only on its title. In one case, the two options to choose from were “Scientists Find Still More Evidence that Global Warming Actually Slowed in Last Decade” and “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Arctic Ice Melting Even Faster Than Expected.” In another case, the options were reversed: “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Ice Increasing in Antarctic, Not Currently Contributing to Sea Level Rise” vs. “Scientists Find Still More Evidence Linking Global Warming to Extreme Weather.”
The idea here is that in each pairing, one headline presents an ordinary, humdrum, expected story line and one presents something “surprising.” But sometimes, the unsurprising information supports a climate skeptic or doubter viewpoint (global warming slowed) and sometimes it does not (global warming is driving weather extremes). Ditto for the surprising evidence. Sometimes it humors the predilections of Democrats (Arctic melting even faster than expected), and sometimes, of Republicans (Antarctica gaining ice).
Sure enough, the research found that the science-curious in both parties were more inclined to read “surprising” information over humdrum information, and that was so even when it went against their own views. The less scientifically curious were more inclined to simply read information that agreed with what they already think.
Here’s the result — “SCS” refers to “science curiosity scale”:
“This result would suggest that individuals higher in science curiosity more readily engage rather than spurn evidence contrary to their predispositions,” the study reported.
“I think it’s pretty robust,” Kahan said of the finding. “If they’re just going to sit there and say, ‘I’m going to read something on climate change that goes against my political predispositions,’ it’s pretty hard to imagine putting them in a tougher position, in terms of choosing between that appetite and their identity. And they can’t resist.”
Granted, the impact of this revelation may be limited, in that curiosity is not something that we generally think we can impart to people through training or education; rather, it’s something we tend to see as more part of their core cognitive architecture.
Kahan agrees that science curiosity is a “disposition,” not just something ephemeral we are struck by now and again. “Around the 90th percentile, interesting things seem to happen,” he said.
The question then is whether there is an effective way to prime people to be more science-curious — which could then also have political ramifications.
“It’s an asset that there’s a segment of the population that has that kind of disposition, so what you want to do is exploit it to the greatest extent,” Kahan says. “And if we’re lucky, it will percolate into other people with whom they have interactions.”