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Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing

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Friday
Sep092016

Leveraging science curiosity ... a fragment

People keep asking me, "How can we increase science curiosity to counter polarization?!" I dunno. We need more studies to figure that out. But my hunch is that we are likely better off trying to figure out, with more studies, how to leverage science curiosity--that is, how to get the widest possible benefit we can in public discourse out of the contributions that "naturally" science curious people make to it.... From our paper "Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing" (in press, Advances in Pol. Psych.):

5. Now what?

We believe the data we’ve presented paints a surprising picture.  The successful construction of a psychometrically sound science curiosity measure—even one with the constrained focus of the scale described in this paper—might already have seemed improbable. Much more so, however, would have been the prospect that such a disposition, in marked contrast to others integral to science comprehension, would offset rather than amplify politically biased information processing. Our provisional explanation (the one that guided the experimental component of the study) is that the intrinsic pleasure that science curious individuals uniquely take in contemplating surprising insights derived by empirical study counteracts the motivation most partisans experience to shun evidence that would defeat their preconceptions. For that reason science curious individuals form a more balanced, and across the political spectrum a more uniform, understanding of the significance of such information on contested societal risks.

We stress, however, the provisionality of these conclusions. It ought to go without saying that all empirical findings are provisional—that valid empirical evidence never conclusively “settles” an issue but instead merely furnishes information to be weighed in relation to everything else one already knows and might yet discover in future investigations. In this case in particular, moreover, the novelty of the findings and the formative nature of the research from which they were derived would make it reasonable for any critical reader to demand a regime of “stress testing” before she treats the results as a basis for substantially reorganizing her understanding of the dynamics of political information processing.

Obviously, the same measures and designs we have featured can and should be applied to additional issues. But potentially even more edifying, we believe, would be the development of additional experimental designs that would furnish more reason to credit or to discount the interpretation of the data we’ve presented here. We describe the basic outlines of some potential studies of that sort.

* * *

5.3. Science communication

Also worthy of further study is the significance of science curiosity for effective science communication.  We have presented evidence that science curiosity negates the defensive information processing characteristic of PMR. If this is correct, we can think of at least two implications worthy of further study.

click me! You'll be soooo glad you didThe most obvious concerns the possibility of promoting greater science curiosity in the general population.  If in fact science curiosity does negate the polarizing effects of PMR, then it should be regarded as a disposition essential to good civic character, and cultivated self-consciously among the citizens of the Liberal Republic of Science so that they may enjoy the benefit of the knowledge their way of life makes possible (Kahan 2015b).

This is easier said than done, however. Indeed, much much easier. As difficult as the project to measure science curiosity has historically proven itself to be, the project to identify effective teaching techniques for inculcating it and other dispositions integral to science comprehension has proven many times as complicated. There’s no reason not to try, of course, but there is good reason to doubt the utility of the admonition that educators and others to “promote” science curiosity as a remedy for countering the myriad deleterious consequences that PMR poses to the practice of enlightened self-government.  If people knew how to do this, they’d have done it already.

Better, we suspect, would be to furnish science communicators with concrete guidance on how to get the benefit of that quantum of science curiosity that already exists in the general population (Jamieson & Hardy 2014).  This objective is likely to prove especially important if the cognitive-dualism account of how science curiosity counters PMR proves correct.  This account, as we have emphasized, stresses that individuals can use their reason for two ends—to form beliefs that evince who they are, and to form beliefs that are consistent with the best available scientific evidence.  They are more likely to do the latter, though, when there isn’t a conflict between that two; indeed, many of the difficulties in effective science communication, we believe, are a consequence of forms of communication that needlessly put people in the position of having to choose between using their reason to be who they are and using it to know what is known by science—a dilemma that individuals understandably tend to resolve in favor of the former goal (Kahan 2015a). To avoid squandering the value that open-minded, science curious citizens can contribute to political discourse and to the broader science excommunication environment, science communicators should scrupulously avoid putting them in that position.

Indeed, helping science filmmakers to learn how to inadvertently put science curious individuals to that choice is one of the aims of the research project that generated the findings reported in this paper. If we are right about science curiosity and PMR, then this is an objective that science communicators in the political realm must tackle too. 

References

Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015a).

Kahan, D.M. What is the "science of science communication"? J. Sci. Comm, 14, 1-12 (2015b).

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