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Saturday
Sep172016

WSMD? JA! Cultural outlooks & science curiosity

This is approximately the 6,533rd 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.

So a colleague gave a presentation in which an audience member asked what the relationship was between science curiosity and cultural worldviews.

Well, here's a couple of ways to look at that:

From this perspective, it's clear that science curiosity is pretty normally distributed in all the cultural worldview quadrants.  They will all have a mix of types, some of whom really want to watch Your Inner Fish & others of whom would prefer to watch Hollywood Rundown.

But if one bears down a bit, one sees this:

The distributions aren't perfectly aligned. And while it's obviously pretty unusual to be in the 90th percentile or above for any "group," Egalitarian Communitarians, about 15% of whom score that high, are over 2x as likely to have an SCS score above that threshold as either a Hierarch Individualist or Hierarch Communitarian.

This is a bit greater than the disparity that one sees in gender (men are about 2x more likely to score at or above the 90th percentile on SCS) and noticeably greater than the disparity one observes in relation to religiosity (secular are about 1.6x more likely to score at or above the 90th percentil than are religious individuals).

Is this significant in practical terms? I'm really not sure.  

We know that SCS scores predict greater engagement with science entertainment material and also greater willingness to expose oneself to information that is contrary to one's political predispositions on an issue like climate change.

But I don't feel I have enough experience yet with SCS to say what the the score "thresholds" or "cutoffs" are that make a big practical difference, and hence enough experience yet to say what sorts of disparities in science curiosity matter for what end.

I'm curious about these things, and about what explains disparities of this sort.

How about you? 

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Reader Comments (11)

Well the new item of interest to me here is the supposition that men are 2X more likely than women to be "scientifically curious".

But "scientific curiosity" as defined above isn't really about people who are not just noodling around in their natural environment but willing to approach their observations in a structured way. Whether or not that structure resembles the scientific method or is a search for such things as gnomes and fairies obviously depends on their cultural background. The introduction of scientific principles requires education and outreach.

What is being measured is a willingness to say to some sort of pollster that one would be a consumer of information from what is apparently written scientific source material with high credibility in the American intellectual establishment. I'd emphasize the "apparently" because the source chosen for the question, a selection of articles from the AAAS publication Science magazine, is not open source and not easily accessible to the public. As such, I suspect that those selecting that they want to read this are trying to convey a certain intellectual impression to the poll taker. It is not actually a magazine likely to be known to the person answering the question. Answers to such questions might be influenced by what one knows of the sources. For example ESPN and Yahoo Finance are well known to me. I needed to search online to verify that "Daily Dish" was really a thing.

(I also note that not being able to locate my saved pdf of your Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing paper just now, I tried to download it again. This sparked SSRN to come up with an alert that said "Data Integrity System has observed an unusual download pattern either from this computer's IP address or for this paper. As part of SSRN's commitment to quality data, SSRN's Manager of Data Integrity investigates unusual download patterns to minimize system problems and identify attempts to corrupt or manipulate download statistics." They wanted some login procedure, that seemed like a pain to me. But they allowed me to log in anonymously but noted that this meant my reading of the paper would not show up in their statistics. So there you have it, now you might know what happened to the millions of people believed to be following your research. Scientifically curious, IMHO.)

Back to the post above, I think that the data shown again demonstrates that there is a need to look for some other confounding variable. I think that it indicates that it is likely that the x-y axes are not revealing something significant about cultural world views.

In the case of women, I believe that the first place to look would be at the 10 minute segment of "Your Inner Fish". For example, from the website, http://www.pbs.org/show/your-inner-fish/, I note that this show has a male narrator.

There are culturally limiting pressures on women that come into play. For example, participation of women in computer science has actually declined,. The peak occurred in 1984. Some attribute this to marketing practices as personal computers were introduced, which were aimed at boys. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/what-happened-all-women-computer-science-1-180953111/?no-ist. Analogous to this is this recent study on why women quit math after Calculus I. The conclusion was that they were performing as well as the males in the class, but their perception of how they were doing was lower. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0157447.

It seems to me that science curiosity as defined here is not a good measure of actual behavior. Curiosity ought to be a term applied to the ability or desire to be both inquisitive and to actively engage in scientifically sound structured observations based on initial interest in how something works. Certainly those “observations” could be passive and involve literature sources. But still, a willingness to consume written science related information believed to be produced by mainstream establishment scientific sources, while useful. might not demonstrate an inquisitive nature at all. Some of the individuals involved could simply be adhering to their particular cultural brand of authority. Others may not agree with all of the material but still find it well within their cultural comfort zone. At any rate, it should come to no surprise that such people would also be willing to be consumers of information presented in a slightly different manner, by video.

This is useful information to videographers, because this defines their base audience. And anyone engaged in any form of media that they are expecting to disseminate to others, and especially if they expect to make a living at it, definitely needs to have a base audience.

But finding and defining who is a "base audience" also limits participation in that base. It defines a cultural identity from which others may then feel excluded.

Creators of science based videos or other media works are often actually interested in outreach. They want to convince others of their point of view. That could be as simple as generating an appreciation of the science presented. Or it could involve a desire to inspire science informed actions towards certain policy objectives.

Doing that effectively involves culturally cognitive awareness that structures the media presentation such that it enables people who would not select such things as Science magazine as their reading material right off the bat to be drawn into such material anyway.

Last year, I was the instigator of a showing of this film in Bellingham WA: http://www.ariverbetweenus.com/trailer/, which was followed by a facilitated discussion between environmentalists, Native Americans and agricultural interests. This year a different group in Bellingham is hosting a film series including this one: http://milkmenmovie.com/trailer/. A couple of nights ago, I attended a showing of this video on forestry at an event at CU law: https://alanhonick.com/seeing-the-forest-2/ (this was not a venue that fostered forest industry engagement). As another example, in outreach efforts regarding ocean acidification, one strategy is to start with people interested in eating oysters, and to introduce the science from that point.

In my opinion, we need a better "scientifically curious" metric.

September 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

I think the immediate moral of the story is to not put too much trust in the first two PCs of any PCA. The communitarian histograms to the right look to be bimodal, suggesting that there are distinct communitarian populations that are culturally more and less curious about science. (at least non-normal, dunno about multimodal on reexamination)

The bigger moral, I think, is to not demographically target populations for curiosity interventions. When the effect sizes between the categories are so small compared to the base spread, it's not a smart thing to do. Indeed it seems a bit perverse in principle to do so; the whole reason why curiosity seems to be such a good thing for the state of the discourse is that it enables people to look beyond their own self-affiliations. The instant we conduct an intervention targeting X people because we think X people are more curious, or Y people because Y are less, we've done something rather horrible and negated the good that curiosity itself brings.

Here's a strange hypothesis from my SO: curiosity itself is, cognitively, an affiliation with the novel. Curiosity can counteract political affiliations because it's an affiliation itself. SO suggests that because social networks tend to be insular, and the geist of a community tends to be persistent, founder effects will thus be important in explaining disparities in curiosity. For instance, 20th-century America benefited from an exodus of intellectuals from what became the Second World. It's likely that those peoples' cultural values are associated with curiosity in memetically descended populations, like academia.

September 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

@Gaythia--

That was a grievous lapse of precision in my writing. As reflected in the corrected language, the 2x is how much more likely men are than women to score at or above the 90th percentile, not how much "more science curious" men are -- I'm not even sure how to quantify levels of science curiosity in absolute terms using SCS.

Your point about the measure possibly having a response-bias against women is well-taken.

The scale has been behaviorally validated: it predicts how long people will watch science videos, how likely they are to want to view more of it, etc. It also predicts willingness to expose oneself to information that is contrary to one's politcal outlooks.

So it's not just measuring how willing one is to represent that one is science curious (indeed, the mesure itself it not one that involves mere self-charactizerization).

Also, conditional on scoring at the same level on SCS, women are as likely to watch science videos just as long, just as likely to request additonal access to more science materials, etc. That's a good test of whether the scale is measuring the latent or unobserved disposition as well for both groups. If the scale were understating women's science curiosity, then one would expect it to underestimate how likely women are to do the things that evince science curiosity.

Make what you will of that info.

As I said, I think it's hard to say, though, whether a 2x margin at 90th percentile -- about 13% of men, 6.5% of women scoring at or above that level -- is a practically significant difference. Probably not, but at the same time, I wouldn't just shrug my shoulders complacently at that if I were a science educator.

September 17, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Dypoon-- I suspect you are right that there are sources of individual difference lurking inside the culutral groups that are more important than -- explain more than-- any differences originating in cultural outlooks or affiliations.

(I wouldn't say that the HCs or ECs are bimodal; they seem to be tending toward platykurtic or negative kurtosis--i.e., are flatter at the mean than "normal")

September 17, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

In my opinion, rather than determining that "science curiosity" ie, the willingness to be a consumer of information from establishment media sources, is "a culturally random variable", I think we ought to look more closely at what limitations a simple x-y planer model has put on what are called above "Cultural Cognition Worldviews".

For example, in x-y Flatland (https://www.amazon.com/Flatland-Romance-Dimensions-Thrift-Editions/dp/048627263X) hierarchal may be a thing. But there are actually layers of such planes for each recognized realm of hierarchy. Some hierarchical cultural structures are led by leaders that are religious, some political, some military, some are academics, some may be movie stars.

I believe that such a deeper analysis would be quite helpful with an analysis of how to do effective science (and other) communication in a culturally pluralistic society. A greater understanding of the forces that enable and promote the slicing and dicing of the public into smaller and more polarized identity groups may also lead to methods to create frameworks that unify rather than divide.

September 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

@Gaythia-

The limits of models are always obvious. Only a fool would say that a 2x2 captures "culture." But what's not obvious--& what can often expose foolishness-- is the insight a simple model can be capable of supplying all the same.

September 18, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I'm assuming ulterior motives here. Like it would be good to know more about who these SCS folks are so we can see if we can expand the boundaries a bit. And understand how it is that other forces have allowed the boundaries to contract. Because fostering a science informed society, is, we think, a good thing.

September 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

@GAythia--

you have ulterior motives? Or I do? Either way, curious what they are.

But tell me more about what you'd like to know & I'll try my best to oblige!

Realize this is first pass at development of useful measure, something that has evaded scholars for quite some time. See the discussion of scale development in Science Curioisity & Political Information Processing (hope you were able to make it past the SSRN serpent).

September 19, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"Like it would be good to know more about who these SCS folks are so we can see if we can expand the boundaries a bit."

For what it's worth, my theory was that it was simply picking up that subset of the population who get all their opinions from the popular scientific media, who identify it as their 'trusted authority', and who therefore credulously believe more-or-less whatever it tells them. They would be both interested in watching more science documentaries, and uniformly believers of whatever positions the scientific media uniformly hold - whether that position is for or against the scientific consensus, the best available evidence, or plain common sense. Or their favoured brand of politics/religion.

The problem is, there are a lot of different authorities to pick from.

September 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV--

how would you test that conjecture?

September 20, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan,

By finding instances where the consensus in the popular science media was contrary to the best scientific evidence, scientific consensus, and the positions held by political/cultural identity groups.

You may recall, I noted the case of fracking last time this came up. The SCS folks on both sides of the political divide were united against fracking, even though this is contrary to the best scientific evidence and the scientific consensus among professional geologists and drilling engineers. But whenever I have seen fracking mentioned in the popular science media, it is always described as at least "controversial", if not potentially dangerous, so it would not be very surprising that people who get their opinions from that source would assume there was something to the controversy.

Of course, that's just one example, and still requires confirmation by survey of where the actual scientific consensus really is (my personal anecdotal viewpoint on that based on a grossly inadequate sample size is obviously not sufficient). And last time round, we immediately entered into an argument over whether the best scientific evidence really did support the historic safety of fracking. It ended up with Gaythia declaring that our domestic networks of gas and sewer pipes appeared to be dangerously under-regulated on comparable environmental grounds. It just goes to show how our differing worldviews affect what we each see as 'obvious' conclusions from the same data. I assumed that if it was shown that gas/sewer pipes and fracking led to similar risks, that it would be 'obvious' that fracking was safe. Gaythia demonstrated that it could equally well be seen to imply that sewer pipes were 'obviously' more dangerous than we had hitherto supposed! Vive la difference, as we say in Europe!

However, the principle still stands. What would be needed would be a lot more examples of "controversies" on which SCS folk of both political camps converged, to try to identify patterns and common features. Instances where the popular media 'simplify' some scientific issue to the point of being plain wrong, and that identity politics is divided on. Tricky, but not in principle impossible.

September 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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