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Thursday
Mar102016

WSMD? JA! Are science-curious people just *too politically moderate* to polarize as they get better at comprehending science?

This is approximately the 9,616th episode in the insanely popular CCP series, "Wanna see more data? Just ask!," the game in which commentators compete for world-wide recognition and fame by proposing amazingly clever hypotheses that can be tested by re-analyzing data collected in one or another CCP study. For "WSMD?, JA!" rules and conditions (including the mandatory release from defamation claims), click here.

This is the 2d "WSMD?, JA!" follow up on a post that called attention to an intriguing quality of science curiosity.

Weird! click it! Weird! click it!Observed in data from the CCP/Annenberg Public Policy Center Science of Science Filmmaking Initiative, the property of science in curiosity that has aroused so much curiosity among this site’s 14 billion regular subscribers (plus countless others) was its defiance of  the “second law” of the science of science communication: motivated system 2 reasoning—also known by its catchy acronym, MS2R!

MS2R refers to the tendency of identity-protective reasoning—and as a result, cultural polarization—to grow in intensity in lock step with proficiency in the reasoning dispositions necessary to understand science.  It is a pattern that has shown up time and again in the study of how people assess evidence relating to societally contested risks. 

But as I showcased in the original post and reviewed "yesterday," science curiosity (measured with “SCS_1.0”) seems to break the mold: rather than amplify opposing states of belief, science curiosity exerts a uniform directional influence on perceptions of human-caused climate change and other putative risk sources in all people, regardless of their political orientations or level of science comprehension.

An intriguing, and appealing, surmise is that the appetite to learn new and surprising facts neutralizes the defensive information-processing style that identity-protective cognition comprises.

But this is really just a conjecture, one that is in desperate need of further study.

Such study, moreover, will be abetted, not thwarted, by the articulation of plausible alternative hypotheses. The best empirical studies are designed so that no matter what result they generate we’ll have more reason than we did before to credit one hypothesis relative to one or more rival ones.

In this spirit, I solicited commentators to suggest some plausible alternative explanations for the observed quality of science curiosity.

Click it! Do it! Do it!I talked about one of those "yesterday": the possibility that science curiosity might exert an apparent moderating effect only because in fact those high in science curiosity aren’t uniformly proficient enough in science comprehension to bend evidence in the direction necessary to fit positions congenial to their identities.

As I explained, I don’t think that’s true: again, the evidence in the existing dataset, which was assembled in Study 1 of the CCP/APPC “science of science filmmaking initiative,” seems to show that science curiosity moderates science comprehension’s  magnification of political polarization even in those subjects who score highest in an assessment (the Ordinary Science Intelligence scale) of that particular reasoning proficiency.

But that’s just a provisional assessment, of course.

Today I take up another explanation, viz.,  that  “science-curious” individuals might be  more politically moderate than science-incurious ones.

Based on how science curiosity affected views on climate change, @AaronMatch raised the possibility that “scientifically-curious conservatives” might be “more moderate than their conservative peers.”

This would indeed be an explanation at odds with the conjecture that science curiosity stifles or counteracts identity-protective cognition. 

If people who are high in science curiosity happen to be disposed to adopt more moderate political stances than less curious people of comparable self-reported political orientations, then obviously increased science curiosity will not drive citizens of opposing self-reported political orientations apart—but not because curiosity affects how they process information but because curiosity is simply an indicator of being less intensely partisan than one might otherwise appear.

Do the data fit this surmise?

Arguably, @Aaron’s view reflects an overly “climate change centric” view of the data.  Neither highly science-curious conservatives nor highly science-curious liberals seem “more moderate” than their less curious counterparts on the risks of handgun possession or unlawful entry of immigrants into the US, for example. In addition, if “moderation” for conservatives is defined as “tending toward the liberal point of view,” then higher science comprehension predicts that more strongly than higher science curiosity on the risks of legalizing marijuana and of pornography. . . .

But to really do justice to the “science-curious folks are more moderate”  hypothesis, I think we’d have to see how science curiosity relates to various policy positions on which partisans tend to disagree.  Then we could see if science-curious individuals do indeed adopt less extreme stances on those issues than do individuals who have the same score on “Left_right,”  the scale that combines self-reported liberal-conservative ideology and political-party identification, but lower scores on SCS. 

There weren’t any policy-position items in our “science of science documentary filmmaking” Study No. 1 . . . .

But of course we did collect cultural worldview data! 

These can be used to do something pretty close to what I just described.  The six-point “agree-disagree” CW items reflect values of fairly obvious political significance (e.g., “The government interferes far too much in our everyday lives”;  “Our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal”).  The “science curiosity = political moderation” thesis, then, should predict that relatively science curious individuals will be more “middling” in their cultural outlooks than individuals who are less science curious.

That doesn’t seem to be true, though.

 

These Figures plots separately for subjects above and below the mean on SCS, the science curiosity scale, the relationship of the study subjects’ scores on the cultural worldview scales in relation to their scores on “Left_right,” the composite measure formed by combining their responses to a five-point liberal-conservative ideology and a seven point party-identification item.  

If relatively science-curious subjects were more politically “moderate” than relatively incurious subjects with equivalent self-reported left-right political orientations, then we’d expect the slope for the solid lines to be steeper than the dotted ones in these Figures.  They aren’t.  The slopes are basically the same.

Here are Figures that plot the probability that a subject with any a particular Left_right score will hold the cultural worldviews of an “egalitarian communitarian,” an “egalitarian individualist,” a “hierarchical communitarian,” or a “hierarchical individualist” – first for the sample overall, and then for subjects identified by their relative science curiosity.

The only noticeable difference between relatively curious and incurious subjects is how likely politically moderate ones are to be either “egalitarian individualists” or “hierarchical communitarians.”

I’m not sure what to make of this except to say that it isn’t what you’d expect to see if science-curious subjects were more politically moderate than science-incurious ones conditional on their political orientations.  If that were so, then the differences in the probabilities of holding one or another combination of cultural outlooks would be concentrated at one or the other or both extremes, not the middle of, the Left_right political orientation scale.

To make this a bit more concrete, remember that the “cultural types” most polarized on climate change are egalitarian communitarians and hierarchical individualists.  

Thus, in order for the “science curious => politically moderate” thesis to explain the observed effect of science curiosity in relation to partisan views on human-caused global warming, science-curious subjects located at the extremes of the Left_right measure would have to be less likely than science-incurious ones to be members of those cultural communities. 

They aren’t.

So I think based on the data on hand that it’s unlikely the impact of science curiosity in defying the law of MS2R is attributable to a correlation between that disposition and political moderation.  

But as I said, the data on hand aren’t nearly as suited for testing that hypothesis as lots of other kinds would be.  So for sure I’d keep this possibility in mind in designing future studies.

BTW, for purposes of highlighting science curiosity’s defiance of MS2R, I’ve been using Left_right as the latent-disposition measure that drives identity-protective cognition.  But one can see the same thing if one uses cultural worldviews for that purpose.

Take a look:

Click for closer inspection, and for entry to win free synbio IPad!

Actually, these cultural worldview data make me want to say something—along the lines of something I said before once (or twice or five thousand times), but quite a while ago; before all but maybe 3 or 4 billion of the regular readers of this blog were even born!—about the relationship between left-right measures and the cutural cognition worldview scales.

And now that I think of it, it’s related to what I said the other day about alternative measures of  the dispositions that drive identity-protective cognition. . . .

But fore sure, this is more than enough already for one blog post!  I’ll have to come back to this “tomorrow.”

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Reader Comments (7)

My sense is that those who are most motivated to protect their identity in association with political orientation are compelled to seek out more information. You often suggest that there is a causal mechanism that goes like:

more proficient ---> more polarized

My conjecture goes like:

more polarized ---> more proficient.

Scientific curiosity lies outside the causal mechanism.

March 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua--

I don't get "more polarized ---> more proficient"; are you saying that once people form an identity-congruent position on climate chagne they go out & learn how to detect covariance & do conditional probability problems? Do you know *when* those who have those reasoning capacities acquired them? Yrs in advance of anything like the climate change controversy happening!

The sorts of skills that science comprehension comprises are very general, & very generally useful; people acquire those skills, if they can, to use them to make their lives go better or to specialize in professions that use them. On your account, we'd expect math & science courses to be filled w/ hyper-partisan politics junkies, right? Notice, too, that high-science comprehension doesn't predict polarization generally; on most risk issues, those types converge.

Identity-protective reasoning can motivate information seeking-- at any level of science comprehension. That's not in doubt. The question is how good people are at making *use* of information they find. That's where greater science comprehension makes its contribution to polarization.

As for science curiosity being outside mechanism -- that seems to be the whole point. If science curiosity has uniform direction on risk perceptions regardless of partisanship & science comprehension, then it is a arguably a reasoning dispositoin that promotes open-minded engagement with evidence regardless of the conspiracy between identity & critical reason to censor information that challenges the cultural orthodoxy one happens to be committed to...

March 10, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

OK, this really made me wonder. Are we looking at the wrong people? If high OSI polarizes, and science curiosity doesn't, yet science curiosity correlates with OSI, perhaps we should look at high-OSI people who are science incurious. Maybe the science-curious look a lot like the rest of the world, and the polarization is being driven by the group that is incurious, yet proficient. Are they less likely to be moderate? Or do they look different in other meaningful ways? Also, how many are there?

It's a curious set of traits, to be proficient yet incurious. Maybe it's these folks that are the root of the problem.

Just thinking out loud.

March 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Haspel

@Tamar-- I'll have to think about that for a bit ... make sure I understand it & can figure out how it realtes to "yesterday's" post on relationship between OSI, SCS & partisan polarization. You can see science-incurious high OSI in that post; does it fit your conjecture?...

However, I *think* what you are describing occurred in the study in relation to how science curiosity, science comprehension & belief in evolution interacted in connection w/ engagement with the evolution-documentary video.

That is, the science-incurious, high-OSI nonbelievers were so aggressively disengaged & unpersuaded by the clip that it appeared that high-OSI mangified polarization in engagment as between evolution believers & nonbelievers. But in fact, high-OSI didn't genuinely reduce engagement w/ video among evolution nonbelievers who were high in science curiosity.

March 10, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

==> On your account, we'd expect math & science courses to be filled w/ hyper-partisan politics junkies, right?

Not exactly. You're reasoning backwards from a extreme example. The relevant question is whether people who are in math and science courses are more likely, on average, to have a strong political identity in association with views on a specific subset of issues (such as climate change - which is explicitly linked to evaluating scientific and mathematical evidence), than those who pursue other avenues in life - say, becoming a used car salesman or a plumber (professions which may also rely on reasoning skills related to evaluating conditional probabilities, but quite likely those formal operational skills that they develop don't transfer terribly well into your assessment paradigm).

These questions are obviously highly complex, and likely influenced by a variety of social and cultural factors, as discussed in this link:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unique-everybody-else/201305/intelligence-and-politics-have-complex-relationship

So I'm thinking of a marginal difference.

In my life experiences, people who are more prone toward polarization on the issue of climate change come from social and cultural backgrounds that prioritize (relative to the general American public) formal education, and in particular formal education in more technical fields. Developing skills such as evaluating math-related conditional probabilities is directly linked to a belief that developing those skills in an integral part of group affinity. In my experience, people in academia or who work in fields that require a high level of academic qualifications, tend to be relatively more interested in politics, spending time with people who are relatively interested in politics, and in reinforcing their political beliefs through acquiring and assessing evidence and data. Did their interest in political identity develop because they developed their formal reasoning skills? Maybe, but I tend to think it's more complicated than that.

Let's imagine that my speculative and anecdotal reasoning were true (as implausible as that may be). Then if we collected data on a sample of people who come from backgrounds where group-identity (relatively) prioritizes the development of formal operational reasoning skills to be used in math- and science-related contexts, we would find that they are (relatively) strongly identified on the issue of climate change as well has have a (relative) tendency to be more informed about issues directly related to climate change as well as more proficient i the analytical skills required to evaluate those data.

Of course, there are plenty of people who have a strong political group-identity orientation but who aren't particularly influenced by that group-identity to develop formal operational reasoning skills in math- and science-related fields. But my guess that they would be more likely (than the sample I was speculating about) to just go "meh" if you asked them about their assessment of the state of climate science

==> The question is how good people are at making *use* of information they find. That's where greater science comprehension makes its contribution to polarization.

I'm not disagreeing with that. Greater science comprehension enables people to better support a strong politically-associated view on the issue of climate change. That's kind of my point, actually: An greater interest (payoff, if you will) in developing scientific comprehension (so as to reinforce beliefs) motivates the development of stronger skills in scientific comprehension.

March 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua--

1. Does your position imply that there should be a postitve correlation between science comprehension (or reasoning proficiencies related to science comprehension) and intensity of partisan identity? I could probably give you some information on that (it's not something I've tried to figure out before).

2. There's an ambiguity in your position-- or at least a point I'm unclear on. You seemed to say that intensity of partisanship *causes* cultivation of science comprehension proficiency ("more polarized ---> more proficient"). But in your elaboration you seem to say only that the two will covary--

The relevant question is whether people who are in math and science courses are more likely, on average, to have a strong political identity in association with views on a specific subset of issues (such as climate change - which is explicitly linked to evaluating scientific and mathematical evidence), than those who pursue other avenues in life - say, becoming a used car salesman or a plumber"

& indeed are probably even spuriously correlated-- i.e., that some 3d variable involved in upbringing or social bkrd causes both:

In my life experiences, people who are more prone toward polarization on the issue of climate change come from social and cultural backgrounds that prioritize (relative to the general American public) formal education, and in particular formal education in more technical fields. Developing skills such as evaluating math-related conditional probabilities is directly linked to a belief that developing those skills in an integral part of group affinity.

The latter view is much more plausible. I don't know if it's true, but at least I get how it would work.

I also don't think there's anything inconsistency between it and the the "expressive rationality"view I've advanced to explain MS2R. The "more polarized ---> more proficient" claim is probably not consistent with it, but the spurious correlation claim doesn't seem incompatible w/ it, as far as I can tell.

March 11, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

@Joshua--

==> 1. Does your position imply that there should be a postitve correlation between science comprehension (or reasoning proficiencies related to science comprehension) and intensity of partisan identity? I could probably give you some information on that (it's not something I've tried to figure out before).

Marginally.

Not for all, but for a certain subset. I think that there is an influence of culture, but that's an influence that certainly isn't uniform.

For example, if I think of Japanese academics and executives that I've worked with, where I have often been surprised by their lack of interest in and knowledge about partisan politics (in the U.S. and even in their home country) relative to European academics and executives that I've known/worked with over the years. With Japanese, for example, I think that there may well be an influence of a "consensus" cultural framework that de-emphasizes individualism relative to those from other cultural backgrounds.

I think of my American co-workers from when I was a carpenter, who may have been raised in a highly partisan culture of origin but who were much less likely than myself to seek out and develop more formal information-processing skills to further their ability to reinforce their group identification. They didn't particular need or trust a formal operational framework for reinforcing their sense of identity. They were more inclined to form beliefs based on their day-to-day common sense observations (which told them that Jews were cheap, liberals were pussies, and Blacks were lazy) - without needing to approach evidence and data from a scientific frame to justify their beliefs. Whereas I, and others from my Northeast Coast Jewish cultural framework, would be much more comfortable with my own beliefs after seeking out evidence and data and filtering it through a partisanship-reinforcing filter. Just as my construction co-workers might see a formal evidence evaluation process as an inherently biased process (those latte-drinking, elitist, "educated fools" who can't even see what is plainly obvious and who use their high-fallutin' education to trick themselves and impose their beliefs on others they see as inferior), so might people from my more immediate cultural framework see a lack thereof as an inherently biasing process. (And personally, I see some truth to both perspectives).

==> .There's an ambiguity in your position-- or at least a point I'm unclear on. You seemed to say that intensity of partisanship *causes* cultivation of science comprehension proficiency ("more polarized ---> more proficient"). But in your elaboration you seem to say only that the two will covary--

Perhaps. Sure, I may be looking more at moderator/mediator influences on the causal mechanism. But I think it is, to some degree, context specific. In other words, with climate change in particular, there may be more of a

partisanship ---> more proficient

causality because of the more technical/scientific/abstract nature of the partisan divide. There may be a stronger relationship between technical skills and abilities and partisanship on climate change than with other issues, such as whether abortion is murder or high rates of gun ownership reduces or increases crime.

So while it might be more along the line so of: partisanship ---> more proficient....with climate change,...

...within a larger framework with a wider spectrum of issues it is more upbringing/social background/partisanship ---> more proficiency in formal operational information processing.


==> & indeed are probably even spuriously correlated-- i.e., that some 3d variable involved in upbringing or social bkrd causes both

Yeah. That is probably what I'm going for

==> I also don't think there's anything inconsistency between it and the the "expressive rationality"view I've advanced to explain MS2R. The "more polarized ---> more proficient" claim is probably not consistent with it, but the spurious correlation claim doesn't seem incompatible w/ it, as far as I can tell.

Will think more about that.

March 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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