Curiosity saved the liberal?

Let’s stick with the liberals and conservatives are different theme.  Dan Kahan (the man behind your partisanship even makes you bad at math, research) has some really interesting new research that presents– to some degree– a way out of this.  Scientific curiosity.  Nice summary in the Atlantic:

Kahan and his collaborators wanted to see whether this very human tendency to seek out facts that conform with our reasoning and identities—staying glued to our red and blue feeds—can ever be tamped down.

They found that it could, as long as you possess an odd trait called “science curiosity.” This is not, it turns out, the same as merely being good at science, or understanding it. Science curiosity, as Kahan measured it, describes people who are intrigued by surprising information and scientific discoveries. In the study, the science-curious spent longer watching a science documentary and were more interested in reading science news. Meanwhile, those who simply understood science weren’t as engaged with the videos. They weren’t into “self-motivated consumption of science information for its own sake,” they write.

Typically, being confronted with evidence only makes people cling more firmly to their beliefs on controversial topics like gun control, climate change, or vaccine safety. Similarly, in this study, Kahan found that science-literate conservatives were more likely to dispute humans’ role in global warming, while science-literate liberals were much more likely to acknowledge it. (People who didn’t know much about science were equally likely to agree and disagree, regardless of party.)

“We always observed this depressing pattern: The members of the public most able to make sense of scientific evidence are in fact the most polarized,” Kahan said in a statement.

But, surprisingly, the science-curious among them didn’t harbor the same knee-jerk biases. They were more likely than the non-curious to read a news story that clashed with their political affiliation. The liberals, for example, opted to read a newspaper article headlined, “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Ice Increasing in Antarctic, Not Currently Contributing To Sea-Level Rise.” They craved novelty, even when they knew they wouldn’t agree with it.

“For them, surprising pieces of evidence are bright, shiny objects—they can’t help but grab at them,” Kahan said.

And though the conservative, science-curious participants still thought global warming and fracking were less of a big deal than their liberal counterparts, the more science-curious they were, the more of a risk they considered it. The two party lines ran in parallel, rather than toward opposite poles:

In other words, curiosity seems to be the pin that bursts our partisan bubbles, allowing new and sometimes uncomfortable information to trickle in. Nothing else works like curiosity does, the authors point out—not being reflective, or good at math, or even well-educated.

Instead, they write, it’s “individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected … [who] expose themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations.”[emphasis mine]


Cool!  I think I’ve pretty well-established that I’m “scientific curious” and I know many of you are as well.  And I love that analogy– to me, the shiny new thing is indeed something that pushes against what I already believe/know (from a respected source, of course).  There’s not a lot of interest in one more article telling me that single-payer health plans are a good idea.

Both this and the Vox article I link below, however, suggest that this is some sort of “solution” to the cognitive biases behind partisan polarization.  Unfortunately, until you can demonstrate to me that we can fundamentally change persons’ baseline levels of scientific curiosity, hard to see how that’s actually the case.

Also, check out the more thorough summary of Kahan’s work at Vox (and you know you’re curious to know more– right?).



About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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