Liberals Doubt Science, Too

Republicans like Scott Walker trip over questions on evolution. But there are science topics liberals feel uncomfortable accepting. It has nothing to do with intelligence—it just comes with being human.

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National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Feb. 13, 2015, 5 a.m.

Demo­crats are the party of sci­ence, right? They’re the ones on the side of cli­mate sci­ent­ists, the ones you don’t have to tell twice that the Earth’s age is meas­ured on the scale of bil­lions, and not thou­sands, of years.

It feels like a fun­da­ment­al of Amer­ic­an polit­ics: Lib­er­als are more trust­ing of sci­ent­ists, con­ser­vat­ives are the skep­tics. We find con­firm­a­tion in this as­sump­tion in head­lines all the time: when Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er asks to “punt” on a ques­tion of evol­u­tion, when Sen. Rand Paul echoes vac­cin­a­tion doubts.* We see it when the Pew Re­search Cen­ter polls lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives on sci­ence-re­lated is­sues.

“There’s this nar­rat­ive in the pop­u­lar press that some­how con­ser­vat­ives are in­her­ently de­fi­cient when it comes to sci­ence,” Erik Nis­bet, a com­mu­nic­a­tions re­search­er at Ohio State Uni­versity, says. “Or in­her­ently dis­trust­ful of sci­ence—more so than lib­er­als.”

But that nar­rat­ive isn’t true. This is: Just as con­ser­vat­ives dis­count the sci­entif­ic the­or­ies that run counter to their world­view, lib­er­als will do ex­actly the same. Nis­bet and his col­leagues con­firmed this in ex­per­i­ment pub­lished in The An­nals of the Amer­ic­an Academy of Polit­ic­al and So­cial Sci­ence.

Here’s the setup: 1,518 par­ti­cipants were asked to eval­u­ate an edu­ca­tion­al web­site called Sci­ence­wise. On the site, they read fairly simple art­icles on sci­ence top­ics (ex­amples be­low). Par­ti­cipants were sor­ted in­to one of three con­di­tions. 

In the first con­di­tion, par­ti­cipants read about either cli­mate change or hu­man evol­u­tion. These are top­ics on which lib­er­als tend to be wel­com­ing and con­ser­vat­ives more hos­tile.

The second con­di­tion presen­ted sci­ence top­ics more likely to be favored by con­ser­vat­ives and dis­trus­ted by lib­er­als—hy­draul­ic frack­ing or nuc­le­ar power. Nis­bet and col­leagues chose these top­ics be­cause they tend to re­veal a large con­ser­vat­ive/lib­er­al split on pub­lic-opin­ion polls.

In the third con­di­tion, par­ti­cipants read about an ideo­lo­gic­ally neut­ral top­ic—either as­tro­nomy or geo­logy. “There’s not a lot of lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives scream­ing about how Pluto is no longer a plan­et,” Nis­bet says ex­plain­ing why as­tro­nomy is a neut­ral sub­ject.

Here are some ex­amples of what they saw.

After the par­ti­cipants read through the site, they were asked: 1) what they thought about the in­form­a­tion, 2) wheth­er they found them­selves ar­guing with that in­form­a­tion, and 3) how much trust they had in the sci­entif­ic com­munity.

In the nuc­le­ar-en­ergy-frack­ing con­di­tion, lib­er­als “had a more neg­at­ive emo­tion­al ex­per­i­ence than con­ser­vat­ives, res­isted the in­form­a­tion more than the con­ser­vat­ives,” Nis­bet says. They also in­dic­ated a lower trust in sci­ence than the lib­er­als in the ideo­lo­gic­al neut­ral con­di­tion (the geo­logy-as­tro­nomy con­di­tion). That’s right: When lib­er­als are con­fron­ted with top­ics they tend to dis­agree with, they be­gin to dis­trust the sci­ence.

“The dif­fer­ence between lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives is not that one has bi­ases and one does not,” Nis­bet says. “It’s that we may have bi­ases against spe­cif­ic top­ics.” Con­ser­vat­ives may be seen as an­ti­science, but that per­cep­tion arises be­cause sci­entif­ic top­ics that are most of­ten dis­cussed are those that most read­ily of­fend the con­ser­vat­ive world­view.

When con­ser­vat­ives read about evol­u­tion or cli­mate change, they too re­acted neg­at­ively, but their re­ac­tions were stronger (i.e., more neg­at­ive). Nis­bet says that could be be­cause cli­mate change and evol­u­tion are more sa­li­ent in every­day dis­cus­sions than frack­ing and nuc­le­ar power.

More troub­ling, Nis­bet finds evid­ence that polit­ic­al dis­cus­sion on sci­entif­ic is­sues may make every­one more skep­tic­al of sci­ence. Even lib­er­als, who re­por­ted they be­lieve in cli­mate change and evol­u­tion, were more skep­tic­al of sci­ence in the cli­mate-change-evol­u­tion con­di­tion than in the neut­ral geo­logy-as­tro­nomy con­di­tion. “Both lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives had lower trust in sci­ence after the ex­pos­ure to that in­form­a­tion,” Nis­bet says. “Politi­ciz­ing sci­ence may re­duce trust for every­body, be­cause it starts rais­ing ques­tions over wheth­er sci­ence is be­ing used for polit­ic­al reas­ons on one side or an­oth­er.”

So what does this all mean for pub­lic dis­course? Know­ing that every­one is sus­cept­ible to par­tis­an bi­as does not ex­cuse the mis­use of facts or the out­right dis­missal of a sci­entif­ic con­sensus. It’s im­port­ant to re­cog­nize that the psy­cho­lo­gic­al pres­sure to ad­here to a par­tis­an world­view may be stronger than the forces of lo­gic. And that’s a bi­as every­one is sus­cept­ible to.

Have em­pathy for those you dis­agree with. They are not stu­pid (well, maybe some­times). Just hu­man.

*Vac­cin­a­tion is­sues, in­ter­est­ingly, don’t fall along usu­al Demo­crat­ic/Re­pub­lic­ans lines. Ma­jor­it­ies in each party sup­port vac­cin­a­tion re­quire­ments. Opin­ions seem to be sor­ted by age. Even so, Rand Paul was fram­ing the is­sue around a com­mon Re­pub­lic­an trope: the right of an in­di­vidu­al to chose, over a gov­ern­ment re­com­mend­a­tion.

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