WSMD? JA! Are science-curious people just *too politically moderate* to polarize as they get better at comprehending science?
Thursday, March 10, 2016 at 3:02AM
Dan Kahan

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.”

Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (
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