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Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing

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WSMD? JA! Do science-curious people just not *know* enough about science to be "good at" identity-protective cognition?

This is approximately the 4,386th 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 lots of curious commentators had questions about the data I previewed on the relationship between science curiosity, science comprehension, and political polarization.  They posed really good questions that reflect opposing hypotheses about the dynamics that could have produced the intriguing patterns I showcased.

I don’t have the data (sadly, but also not sadly, since now I can figure out what to collect next time) that I’d really want to have to answer their questions, test their hypotheses.  But I’ve got some stuff that’s relevant and might help to focus and inform the relevant conjectures.

I’ll start, though, by just briefly rehearsing what the cool observations were that triggered the reflective theorizing in the comment thread.

Here is the key graphic:

click me, click me, click me!

What it shows is that science comprehension (left panel for each pair) and science curiosity (right) have different impacts on the extent of partisan disagreement over contested societal risks.

Science comprehension (here measured with the "Ordinary Science Intelligence" assessment) magnifies polarization.  This is not news; this sad feature of the class of societal risks that excite cultural division (that class is limited!) is something researchers have known about for a long time.

But science curiosity doesn’t have that effect.  Obviously, the respondents who are most science-curious are not converging in a dramatic way. But the patterns observed here—that science curiosity basically moves diverse respondents in the same general direction in regard to their assessment of disputed risks—suggests that individuals who are high in that particular disposition are basically processing information in a similar way. 

That’s pretty radical.  Because pretty much all manner of reasoning proficiency related to science comprehension does seem to be associated with greater polarization—so to find one that isn’t is startling, intriguing, encouraging & for sure something that that cries out for explanation and further interrogation.

In the post, I speculated that science curiosity might be a cognitive antidote to politically motivated reasoning: in those who experience this appetite intensely, the anticipated pleasure of being surprised  displaces the defensive style of information processing that people (especially those proficient in critical reasoning) employ to deflect assent to information that might challenge a belief integral to their identities as members of one or another cultural group.

But responding to my invitation, commentators helpfully offered some alternative explanations. 

I think I can shed some light on a couple of those alternatives. 

Not a dazzling amount of light but a flicker or two.  Enough to make the outlines of this strange, intriguing thing slightly more definite than they were in the original post—but without making them nearly clear enough to extinguish the curiosity of anyone who might be impelled by the appetite for surprise to probe more deeply . . . .

Actually, there are two specific conjectures I want to consider:

1. @AndyWest:  Is the impact of science curiosity in mitigating polarization reduced to individuals who are low in science comprehension?


2. @AaronMatch: Are “science-curious” individuals more politically moderate than science-noncurious ones?

I’ll take up @AndyWest’s query today & return to @AaronMatch’s “tomorrow.”

* * *

So: @AndyWest suggests, in effect,  that the patterns observed in the data might have nothing really to do with the effect of science curiosity on information processing but only with the effects of greater science comprehension in stimulating polarization about climate change.

Those who know more about a particular domain of contested science, such as that surrounding climate change, use that knowledge (opportunistically) to protect their identities more aggressively and completely than those who know less.  That’s why increased science comprehension is associated with greater polarization.

Because science curiosity (as I indicated) is only modestly correlated with science comprehension, we wouldn’t see magnified polarization as science curiosity alone increases.  Indeed, for sure we wouldn’t see it in my graphics, which illustrated the respective impact of science comprehension and science curiosity controlling for the other (i.e., setting the predictor value for the other at its mean in the sample).

But the reason we’d not be seeing magnified polarization wouldn’t be that science curiosity stifles identity-protective cognition.  It would be that it simply lacks the power to enhance identity-protective reasoning associated with elements of critical reasoning that make one genuinely more proficient in making sense (or anti-sense, if that’s what protecting one’s identity requires) of scientific data.

This is for sure a very pertinent, appropriate follow-up response to the post! 

I gestured toward it my original post, actually, by saying that I had run some analyses that looked at the interaction of science comprehension and science curiosity.  The aim of those analyses was to figure out if the effect of increasing science curiosity in arresting increased polarization is conditional on the level of subjects’ science comprehension.  But I didn’t report those analyses.

Well, here they are: 

click ... me .... click ... me ... click ... me

What these loess (locally weighted regression) analyses suggest is that the impact of science curiosity is pretty much uniform at all levels of science comprehension as measured by the Ordinary Science Intelligence assessment.

There is obviously a big gap in “belief in human-caused climate change” among individuals who vary in science comprehension.

But whether someone is in the top 1/2 of or the bottom 1/2 of science comprehension-- indeed, whether someone is in the bottom decile or top decile of science comprehension-- greater science curiosity predicts a greater probability of agreeing that human beings are the principal cause of climate change, regardless of one's political outlooks.

We can discipline this visual inference by modeling the data:

This logistic regression confirms that there is no meaningful interaction between science curiosity (SCS) and science comprehension (OSI_i).  The coefficients for the cross-product interaction terms for science curiosity and science comprehension (OSIxSCS ) and for science curiosity, science comprehension, and political outlooks (crxosixscs) are all trivially different from zero. 

In other words, the impact of science curiosity in increasing the probability of belief in human-caused climate change (b = 0.31, z = 5.51) is pretty much uniform at every level of science comprehension regardless of political orientation.

Here’s a graphic representation of the regression output (one in which I’ve omitted the cross-product interaction terms, the inclusion of which would add noise but not change the inferential import of the analyses):

Click *me*! click *me*!! click *me*!!!

Again, science comprehension for sure magnifies polarization.

But at every level of science comprehension, science curiosity has the same impact (reflected in the slope of the plotted predicted probabilities): it promotes greater acceptance of human-caused climate change--among both "liberal Democrats" and "conservative Republicans."

So this is evidence, I think, that is inconsistent with @AndyWest’s surmise.  It suggests  the power of  science curiosity--alone among science-reasoning proficiencies--to constrain magnification of polarization is not a consequence of the dearth of high science-comprehending individuals among the segment of the population that is most science curious.

On the contrary, the polarization-constraining effect of science curiosity extends to those even at the highest level of cience comprehension.

@AndyWest had suggested that an analysis like this be carried out among individuals highest in “OCSI”—the “Ordinary Science Comprehension Intelligence” assessment.  This data set doesn’t have OCSI scores in it.  But I do know that there is a pretty decent positive correlation between OSI and OCSI (particularly OSI and the new OCSI_2.0, to be unveiled soon!), so it seems pretty unlikely to me the results would be different if I had looked for an OCSI-SSC rather than an OSI-SSC interaction.

Still, I don’t think this “settles” anything really.  We need more fine-grained data, as I’ve emphasized, throughout.

But this closer look at the data at hand does nothing to dispel the intriguing possibility that science curiosity might well be a disposition that negates identity-protective cognition.

More” tomorrow” on science curiosity and “political moderation.”

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Reader Comments (6)

OSI is not relevant in my observations. What is, is specific understanding of what energy is and isn't. That's very low among all non-scientists from my experience.

March 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Zuris

@Peter-- Well, people high in OSI generally *do* have a pretty good command of what climate scientists have idenfied as the causes & consequences of climate change. They *agree* on that regardless of their cutural or political outlooks.

They disagree about whether human beings are causing climate change but I think that's because "do you believe" items on that measure something else-- who they are....

The question, I think, isn't whether people who are more science curious *know* more about climate change at any given level of OSI (I will keel over dead, at least momentarily, from shock if that's ever shown to be true). It's whether for some reason people who are more science curious are more likely to answer the question "do you believe in climate change" by revealing what they know rather than expressing who they are at any given level of OSI...

March 7, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

My opinion on the scientific curiosity scale was previously given as a comment under your post of 2/25, Science curiosity and identity-protective cognition ... a glimpse at a possible (negative) relationship. In my opinion, this seemed to have problems with confounding variables based on other cultural differences in the materials used as choices. It did seem to be a reasonable quick sorting mechanism for being willing to watch a video called The Inner Fish.Which I suppose might make these same people more likely to be good, (but passive) consumers of packaged information about climate science. It doesn't say anything about their skills at scientific sorting mechanisms.

I think both that more effort needs to go into defining what it means to be scientifically curious. As I noted in my previous comment, I think that there are all sorts of confounding variables involved in the current test. I think that both Andy West and Arron Match are circling around the central question, what is this "science curiosity scale" measuring, and what does it have to do with science?

Isn't what we are really after is people who can evaluate the available information presented to them as "scientific" and sort through it to make reasonable determinations as to its credibility? And use it, (or vote to have policies put in place that assures that society uses it) in some constructive way?

Just to make the situation more complicated, the consumption of available information from available sources of scientific information that ought to be able to be deemed credible, doesn't necessarily have to turn out to be so. Messaging from both the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), regarding the safety of Flint Michigan water is a current example. Both of these institutions are undoubtedly loaded with good scientists. See: In this case, the situation was successfully resolved by truly scientifically curious citizens who did not accept the first bureaucratic responses and continued to ask "but what about this" type questions in the face of scorn and ridicule until the matter was resolved.

March 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Dan, I'll JA: Do you have any experimental data from Europe? If not - and if I want to replicate some of your experiments/measures in an European context (different people, different polarizations), do you have any suggestions on how to go about it?

March 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Engelhardt
March 9, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Dan, apologies, atrociously late to the party. Hope your ears are still on.

Firstly thanks for further digging and attempts to deconfound; much appreciated. I think you have found something, but the question is, what? Notwithstanding you've stated that this doesn't really settle anything yet, and I agree with that, this extra data does not appear to be inconsistent with my surmise. Further, I don't think it specifically supports the proposition that science curiosity is a 'science-reasoning proficiency' which actively constrains the magnification of polarization due to cultural influence.

Dan, it occurs to me that some of the communication difficulties we seem to experience are likely because your lens seems to be looking at individual psychology outwards towards society, while mine is looking at society and cultural entities inwards towards individual psychology. At any rate your description in this post of the original polarization is not one I'd wholly support, or at least it's an incomplete description. Increased science comprehension doesn't increase polarization only because the knowledge can be used for more aggressive protection of cultural identity. Cultures have properties only expressed at the group level, properties that cannot be expressed by an individual. One of these is that a culture will via a raft of social mechanisms maintain its own knowledge base, consistent with its primary narratives. Hence polarization due to strong cultural influence per your LHS charts, is due to bifurcation of knowledge bases. One or both sides is maintaining a culturally assimilated knowledge base; hence it is not just a matter of increased personal enablement and aggressiveness of defense. For a cultural side, not all folks with increased knowledge become 'Jesuits', typically this will be a small minority. Nor will some be particularly more proficient. Yet they will all be further down their own culture's fork of domain knowledge, which exists in opposition to either evidential knowledge or the knowledge base from a competing culture; thereby they're all more convinced too. A good route to translating this into the perspective of individual psychology, is 'the social mind' as promoted by Gazzaniger and others. I don't know whether any of this is important to the particular topic of this post and understanding the nature of science curiosity, but context is always good. However a particular concept of yours which is highly relevant and that I have difficulty with, is...

You portray science curiosity as a form of reasoning. Well likely you know a lot more about this area than me, yet curiosity is more usually described as an innate behavior and one strongly connected to emotion. While we are not Vulcans and cannot perform reasoning without some emotive and instinctive ingredients, this would nevertheless imply that curiosity is very distanced from objectivity. Which particular knowledge (e.g. science, music, politics, etc) an individual seeks when motivated by curiosity will presumably resonate with their lived experience to date, yet this does not imply pre-knowledge of domain operation, and does imply entanglement with their existing cultural context and other emotions. Hence we should surely be more sensitive to explanations for your RHS charts that are consistent with such entanglements, rather than leaping to a pretty surprising conclusion that science curiosity is a reasoning proficiency that somehow erodes cultural defense and always acts in the direction of correctness, which is to say always favoring the more evidentially supported position (which I think is your proposition).

That leads me onto thoughts about what the direction actually *is* for increasing SC in each of your charts. As noted in comments to your original post, I figured that without increasing domain knowledge the tracks should be parallel (at the avg polarization) and flat, i.e. not sloping up or down. Some of the RHS charts essentially do this. Yet the CC and Fracking charts are parallel AND sloping upwards; its entirely possible that this upward slope is created by a different effect to that which removes amplification (and thereby makes parallel tracks). While we disagree on which side is mostly cultural for CC anyhow, it's notable that for this domain the upward slope favors the position of authority and consensus among scientists, whereas for Fracking the upward slope opposes the position of authority and consensus among scientists. If we take the majority consensus of scientists as a gold standard, your position I think, then this indicates that the scientifically curious do not have some unconscious proficiency which helps erode their cultural bias and always steers them closer to an evidential position. They are indeed steered, but what is common about the direction in these two cases and why does SC go there?

So per my original proposition, merely the lack of increasing domain knowledge removes magnification, creating parallel tracks. My additional proposition is that sometimes increasing SC steers these tracks, as seen in the CC and Fracking cases. In these same two cases, this would mean that the Lib / Dem line is rising for a different reason on the RHS, than it does on the LHS. And there are candidate reasons for the RHS.

Your new data does indeed show an impact of SC at every level of OSI. However, it seems overstated to say 'the same' impact, as by eye the gradient seems to reduce significantly going from 10 to 50 to 90 in the percentile charts. In the 50/90 charts, the effect across the whole range of SC also looks much less than the existing distance due to science comprehension magnification. Nor per above, do these charts tell us whether the gradient with SC is due to the same cause as the (Lib / Dem) gradient with OSI (i.e. a greater perception of the evidential position, by whatever means). And while I take your point about using OSI versus OCSI, sheer curiosity (heh!) prompts me to wonder whether the gradient with SC would reduce still more for a chart high in OCSI, i.e. when knowledge is distilled still more into domain expertise (this is not a request to return to the grindstone and get more data!). The reduction in gradient is surely a great clue as to what's going on :)

I recall being immensely science curious when I was young, a curiosity that eventually motivated me to obtain a degree in physics. I recall being amazed at the sheer power of science to explain, to create benefit and avoid disaster, plus the kudos that might accrue when associated with that great endeavor, even the discoveries I might make myself. And I was especially impressed by the high moral ground that science occupied - objectivity and truth above all. Such stirrings may lead eventually to science reasoning, but they are not reasoning in themselves. As noted above, these characteristics are more akin to emotion. So a perfectly plausible theory is that science curious people, from whichever political tradition, are more moved by memes of major benefit and risk in society. Both negative memes such as fear / threat to society, and positive ones such as hope / salvation of society and desire for high moral ground.

The dominant memes in the ascendant environmental movement that now has potent global reach, play on such themes. While calamitous global warming is the main narrative, many other sub-texts are pulled in, of which Fracking is one. In the former case, the dominant public memes happen to align with consensus and authority, while in the latter case they happen to oppose consensus and authority. Hence it is perfectly plausible that SC folks are more sensitive to and moved by such dominant memes, so express more belief in the corresponding narratives, which would cause the parallel tracks to rise on both RHS charts. I don't have independent evidence for this, but my point is that it would explain your charts without invoking the remarkable possibility that SC is a reasoning proficiency that will always pick out the right side. More mundane and accepted concepts will suffice, and there are probably other candidate explanations which likewise don't need anything remarkable. This is not to say that we should be closed to unusual possibilities, of course not. But it does mean we should be sensitive to various other more mundane possibilities first. A reducing gradient in the 10 to 50 to 90 percentile charts would reflect attenuation of the effect as actual knowledge about science grows, again perfectly plausible.

The RHS gradients for handguns and US immigrants are very much closer to flat as well as being parallel, these topics do not invoke expressions of a powerful global movement like the CC and fracking cases, so the kind of grand theme memes the SC (may) react to are not present. The remaining two topics are smaller scale still, and all four of these have less direct connection to hard science regarding a determination of which side is right (and for some topics there may not even be a simple, determinable hard right and wrong). Once again I point out that this proposition does not have independent evidence and I'm not claiming it is a solution. I'm pointing out that the possible sensitivity of SC folks per above, fits the data better than your proposition that SC is a proficiency of science reasoning that erodes cultural defense for a stronger favoring of the evidential side. And likely there are other solutions too which don't invoke what is quite a remarkable proposition.

Anther thing occurred to me regarding your proposed solution. You believe the Lib / Dems to be correct on CC, and presumably therefore that their rising line on the LHS chart for CC is due to increased understanding of the evidence. Hence they would have no significant cultural bias which an increasing SC could erode (or 'stifle', using your terminology). Yet increased SC does not grant the Lib / Dems an increased knowledge of evidence. So while your proposition would explain why the Rep / Con line would rise on the RHS chart (erosion of cultural defense), it does not explain why the Lib / Dem line also rises. That reason has to be different, what is it? In my model both RHS lines rise due to an effect which is not related to better perception of the evidence / evidential side by whatever means (and indeed I believe the Lib / Dem side is in fact the largely cultural side anyhow, though that doesn't make any difference to the propositions above).

However I finish as I started, in that I agree with you that as things stand, nothing is yet settled.

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

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