Two carefully couched studies parse how our political views impact the way we respond to scientific findings.
(Illustration: SunnySideUp/Shutterstock)
(Illustration: SunnySideUp/Shutterstock

In recent years, two narratives have been competing to explain the often-testy relationship between science and ideology. One asserts that all political partisans tend to deny scientific findings when they threaten their world view. The other insists that conservatives are much more resistant to accepting settled science than liberals.

A pair of new studies featured in a special “politics and science” edition of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science suggests both assertions are fundamentally correct.

One paper, by an Ohio State University team led by Erik Nisbet, finds both liberals and conservatives express negative feelings towards the scientific community when research results challenge their assumptions. But the researchers found the intensity of conservatives’ reactions was four times greater than that of liberals.

The other, by Joshua Blank and Daron Shaw of the University of Texas-Austin, concludes that while Americans’ willingness to defer to science “varies considerably across issues,” Democrats “are relatively more likely to say they defer to scientific expertise.”

“Both liberals and conservatives respond more negatively to ideologically dissonant science communication, which indirectly leads to lower trust in the scientific community.”

Overall, the Blank-Shaw paper is more optimistic, emphasizing that “scientific recommendations on public policy are taken seriously by partisans of all stripes.” In contrast, Nisbet and his colleagues Kathryn Cooper and R. Kelly Garrett “distressingly” conclude that political polarization “has the potential to depress trust in science.”

Both sets of authors couch their language carefully, emphasizing that partisans on both sides are at fault. But their actual results suggest a larger problem on the conservative side of the spectrum.

Nisbet and his team conducted an online survey of 1,518 adults, who filled out short surveys measuring their political ideology, general scientific knowledge, and understanding of certain hot-button issues. They were then randomly assigned to read a short summary of scientific findings on issues that make conservatives uncomfortable (climate change or human evolution), those that make liberals uncomfortable (hydraulic fracking or nuclear power), or non-political issues (astronomy or geology).

Afterwards, they were asked to describe the emotions the findings aroused in them, including the extent to which they felt anger and annoyance. They also expressed their level of agreement with five statements measuring their trust in scientists, including “I am suspicious of the scientific community.”

The key results: “Both liberals and conservatives respond more negatively to ideologically dissonant science communication, which indirectly leads to lower trust in the scientific community,” the researchers write.

That said, the magnitude of the negative emotional response was much greater for issues that conservatives find uncomfortable than for those that bother liberals. Resistance to persuasion was also higher for results that contradict conservative orthodoxy.

As the researchers note, conservatives have been shown to have a stronger need for “cognitive closure”—the comforting belief that an issue has been settled. Given the importance conservatives place on (perceived) certainty, it hardly seems surprising that their reaction to evidence that calls into question their beliefs would be more intense than that of liberals.

Nisbet and his colleagues downplay this dynamic, insisting “it is a mistake to overstate these subtle dissimilarities between liberals and conservatives.” But it seems, on the surface at least, to be a more persuasive explanation for their findings than the ones they offer.

The fact that climate change and evolution are somewhat higher-profile issues than fracking or nuclear power, making partisans “better equipped to counter-argue” against the scientific findings, doesn’t really explain the intensity of participants’ emotional responses; the need for cognitive closure does.

“There is substantial variance in the degree to which people think we ought to defer to science. As expected, willingness to defer to scientific expertise decreases as we encounter issues that touch on matters of religious faith or political ideology.”

The Blank-Shaw study draws on an October 2013 survey of 2,000 Americans (all registered voters). They were presented with a randomized list of 16 policy areas, including AIDS prevention, mandatory childhood vaccinations, regulation of nuclear power, stem-cell research and climate change, and asked to indicated on a scale of zero to 10 “how much politicians and public officials should defer to science.” (Zero meant policymakers should ignore the science; 10 meant they should completely follow the scientists’ advice.)

Averaging the answers across the board, the result was a 6.4, meaning people leaned ever-so-slightly toward deferring to the scientific consensus. Whether that’s an encouraging result is something of a glass-half-empty-or-half-full issue.

“Most Americans care about scientific opinion when it comes to most public policy issues,” they write. “There is, however, substantial variance in the degree to which people think we ought to defer to science. As expected, willingness to defer to scientific expertise decreases as we encounter issues that touch on matters of religious faith or political ideology.”

Further analysis reveals “striking differences between Democrats and Republicans,” the researchers add. “The Democrats in our survey are more deferential to science than are the Republicans across every issue domain.”

Importantly, at least in political terms, “those lacking a partisan affiliation—the independents—hold opinions closer to the Republicans,” they write. “In other words, it is the relative pro-science attitudes of Democrats that stand in contrast to the rest of the population, and not the anti-science attitudes of Republicans.”

Blank and Shaw found ideology was a far stronger prediction of scientific denialism than political party affiliation. Specifically, they report that “identifying as more conservative is associated with less willingness to defer to scientific recommendations. Ideology has a clear and substantive effect on attitudes towards science and public policy.”

Given those findings, their conclusion that “in a time of extreme polarization, there is some reason to believe that science can offer common ground” comes across as somewhat wishful thinking.

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