ICT eats RAT & CAT for breakfast: More (and more data on) religiosity, political predispositions, and "anti-science"
The answer, in my view, is that both CAT & RAT are barking up the wrong tree!
Neither conservative ideology nor religiosity has been shown to predict a greater anti-science disposition than the other by the evidence presented. And indeed, that evidence, plus some more, suggests that it's a mistake to think either of them is connected to such a disposition at all.
For those of you just tuning in (site traffic suggests only 10 billion readers for the original post; apparently there was a climate-change induced net outage in the Netherlands Antilles, where there is a very strong CCP following), the question was, “What ‘explains’ public science conflict—political predispositions or religiosity?”
The inspiration for posing the question was an intriguing study that pinned the blame on religion. CCP blog readers viewed the study as methodologically dubious.
But the question was interesting so I decided to try to help us think about it by gathering data and presenting models that seemed responsive to commentators’ concerns.
I characterized the two positions that the original study seemed to be pitting against each other as the “Conservative-science Antipathy Thesis,” or CAT, which identifies antagonism between conservative or right-leaning ideology toward science as the source of public conflicts over climate change and various other science-informed policy issues; and the “Religion-science Antipathy Thesis,” or RAT, which states that religious animosity toward science is the cause.
I used appropriately modeled data from CCP and from the Pew Research Center studies to try to remedy shortcomings in the study that inspired the question—and then asked you, the loyal, perfectly rational 14 billion readers of this blog (or at least the 10 billion who managed to get through and submit response) to say what you made of the evidence.
I’d say Chris Mooney offered the best response, a conclusion I validated by doing an “expert consensus survey." He has been awarded the prize that was offered (he chose the Synbio Ipad—the very last one in stock).
The three issues that were featured in the original study (the one I tried to remedy the methodological defects of)—were climate change skepticism, disbelief in evolution, and opposition to federal support for stem-cell research. Political predispositions and religiosity both seemed to predict these attitudes but in ways that varied in degree and that interacted with one another in diverse patterns. CM thus concluded:
So what's the upshot? Obviously, both politics and religious beliefs contribute to science resistance, and the relative influence of one over the other varies on an issue-by-issue basis. The role of religion is very strong on the evolution issue, far weaker on the climate issue, and somewhere in between on the stem cell issue. And if you picked other issues to examine, you would assuredly find different results yet again.
What this exercise underscores, most of all, is that when people deny science, they do it because they think it conflicts with their personal identity. But many elements go into each of our identities, with both politics and religion constituting vital components for many people.
In light of this, it really doesn't make much sense to assert the power of one over the other.
Yup, for sure I agree with that.
But I’d go further: the evidence presented helped to reveal that neither CAT nor RAT is a very well supported.
In a mistake that is pervasive in the study of public attitudes toward science, the original study constructed its sample of observations in a manner that presupposed a generalized anti-science sensibility is the explanation for conflicts over evolution, climate change, evolution, etc.
But that’s a seriously contested issue too!
ICT—the “identity-protective cognition thesis”—is a major alternative to both RAT & CAT (Sherman & Cohen 2006). On this account, when policy relevant facts become entangled in antagonistic cultural meanings, people start to see individuals’ positions on them as badges of membership in & loyalty to opposing cultural groups. As a kind of identity self-defense, then, they begin to process information relating to these facts in a manner that conforms their beliefs to the positions that are dominant in their group (Kahan 2010, 2012).
RAT & CAT predict, respectively, that “religiosity” and “conservatism” can be shown to offer the best "explanation" for science-hostile positions generally.
It’s not clear that ICT will take any view on the relative influence of religion & conservatism in science disputes. Indeed, for the reasons CM stated, I think it’s strange to imagine that one could meaningfully specify cultural identities in the US in a way that split religiosity and political commitments apart.
But ICT (or at least the variant I find most compelling) does join issue with both RAT and CAT on whether disputes over science can should be attributed to any particular cultural group's “anti-science” dispositions.
Being “liberal” and even “nonreligious” are both integral to self-defining commitments of certain people. Accordingly, where positions on some science-informed policy or other matter becomes entangled in antagonistic cultural meanings, we should expect liberal and nonreligious individuals, as well as conservative and religious ones, to display the signature forms of motivated reasoning that distort their perception of the best available science (Kahan, Peters, Dawson & Slovic 2013).
ICT is a combatant in the “great asymmetry thesis debate,” which asks whether motivated reasoning on science-informed policy issues is concentrated in one end of the political spectrum or instead spread evenly across it is the(Crawford 2013; Brandt & Crawford 2013; Kahan 2013; Mooney 2012).
It was a serious defect in the study that inspired this exercise that it didn’t include in its observations any disputed science issues that might show neither conservatism nor religiosity is distinctively “anti-science.”
By doing so, it assumed particular answers to the question it purported to be investigating.
To remedy this defect, I added another disputed science issue: nuclear power.
That’s one where individuals whose cultural identities are more secular and left-leaning are typically understood to be the ones disposed to adopt “science-skeptical” or “science hostile” positions.
That's more consistent with ICT--and its position on the ideological symmetry of motivated reasoning (Kahan 2013)-- than with either RAT or CAT.
A related point: if a researcher wants to do a valid test of whether disputed science issues are a consequence of one or another group's supposed "anti-science" disposition, then he or she definitely should not rely on simple correlations between the disputed issues and group identities.
Yes, conservatism and religion are associated with hostility to stem-cell research, climate skepticism, and disbelief in evolution.
But to treat that as evidence that conservatism and religion are anti-science and that that is what causes disputes on these issues presupposes that these positions are all explained by some sort of anti-science sensibility rather than something else.
To avoid this obvious error (an instance of selecting on the dependent variable), the researcher has to have a way of measuring whether groups are “pro-“ or “anti-science” independently of their positions on climate skepticism, disbelief in evolution, and opposition to stem-cell research.
Here are some data that help to do that. They come from the GSS, the source used by the intriguing but questionable study that initiated this exercise, and the Pew Public Attitudes Toward Science data base that I identified as much more suited for their study:
What do they show? You tell me! (Click on either for more detail.)
But I will tell you in the meantime what inference I draw from them: (a) that the US public is overwhelmingly pro-science; and (b) that any differences associated with politics and religiosity both are ambiguous and, more importantly, trivial in magnitude.
These sorts of responses—and there are many more items in these data sets that support the dame conclusions (one should in fact look at all, not just one, if one is trying to figure out what they signify!)—are inconsistent with the inference that either conservatism or religiosity is antithetical to science, and hence inconsistent with the assumption that the correlation of these characteristics with climate skepticism, disbelief in evolution, or opposition to stem cell research evinces an anti-science orientation. Accordingly, it is even less sensible to think that one could look at these issues to say which one is “more” anti-science than the other.
Those who attribute disagreement with their views on science disputes to their opponents’ “anti-science” dispositions don’t come off looking especially “pro-science” themselves when they fail to use evidence in a scientifically valid way.
Brandt, M. J., & Crawford, J. (2013). Replication-Extension of 'Not for All the Tea in China!' Political Ideology and the Avoidance of Dissonance-Arousing Situations' (Nam, Jost, & Van Bavel, 2013, Plos One). Retrieved from http://ssrn.com/abstract=2365281 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2365281
Crawford, J. T. (2012). The ideologically objectionable premise model: Predicting biased political judgments on the left and right. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 138-151.
Mooney, C. (2012). The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--And Reality. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The Psychology of Self-defense: Self-Affirmation Theory Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 183-242): Academic Press.