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Are smart people ruining our democracy? What about curious ones? ... You tell me!

Well, what are your answers?  Extra credit, too, if you can guess what mine are based on the attached slides.

Extra extra credit if you can guess the answers of the Yale psychology students (undergrad) to whom I gave a lecture yesterday.  The lecture featured three CCP studies (as reported in the slides), which were presented in this order:

1. Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Dawson, E.C. & Slovic, P. Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government, Behavioural Public Policy 1, 54-86 (2017). This paper reports experimental results showing that subjects high in numeracy use that aptitude to selectively credit and dismiss complex data depending on whether those data support or challenge their cultural group’s position on disputed empirical claims (e.g., permitting individuals to carry concealed guns in public makes crime rates go up—or down). 

The study illustrates motivated system 2 reasoning (MS2R), a dynamic analyzed in this forum “yesterday.”™

2. Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012). Again supportive of MS2R, this study presents observational (survey) data suggesting that individuals high in science comprehension are more likely than individuals of modest comprehension to use that capacity to reinforce beliefs congenial to their membership in identity-defining cultural groups.

3. Kahan, D.M., Landrum, A., Carpenter, K., Helft, L. & Hall Jamieson, K., Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing, Political Psychology 38, 179-199 (2017).  The study reported on in this paper does three things.  First, it walks readers through the development of a science curiosity scale created to predict individual engagement (or lack thereof) with high-quality science documentaries. Second, the it  shows that increases in science curiosity tend to stifle rather than exaggerate partisan differences on societal risk assessments.   Finally, it presents experimental data that suggest science curiosity creates an appetite to expose oneself to novel evidence that runs contrary to one’s political predispositions—an unusual characteristic that could account for the brake that science curiosity applies to cultural polarization.

There were also cameo appearances by two other papers: first, Kahan, D.M., Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem,  Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015), which shows that high science comprehension promotes polarization on some policy-relevant facts (e.g., ones relating to the risks of climate change, gun control, and fracking) but convergence on others (e.g., ones relating to nanotechnology and GM foods).; and second, Kahan, D.M., Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection, Judgment and Decision Making, 8, 407-424 (2013), which uses experimental results to show that individuals high in cognitive reflection are more likely than individuals of modest science comprehension to react in a close-minded way to evidence that a rival group’s members are more open-minded than are members of one’s own group.

So there you go. Now answer the questions! 

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Reader Comments (10)

Do you mean democracy, or technocracy?

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Again supportive of MS2R, this study presents observational (survey) data suggesting that individuals high in science comprehension are more likely than individuals of modest comprehension to use that capacity to reinforce beliefs congenial to their membership in identity-defining cultural groups.

Which issues are associated with the most troubling polarization in our society?

Are "smart people" more polarized about taxes?

Are they more polarized about abortion, the debt, health insurance, healthcare, racism, police brutality, crime reduction, the war in drugs, the "war on Christmas," gun control, "BENGHAZI!!, " Noth Korea, Iran, Harvey Weinstein, Russian interference in the election?

Are "smart people" more polarized about Trump?

October 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Yes, yes. Maybe.

October 18, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

I don't recall you presenting evidence that "smart people" are more polarized on issues such as taxes or abortion or the debt than not-smart people, but knowing that you don't usually make statements without evidential support, I'll assume you must have some.

But for what it's worth, it seems to me that there are more important distinctions related to the impact of polarization on ruining our democracy. For example, it seems to me, that polarization across such designations as "smart" versus not-smart? is more salient to the future direction of our democracy than some relative differences between the means in the degree of polarization among the "smart" relative to the not-smart?.

With the understanding that education levels isn't a terribly accurate proxy for assessing "smartness," but that there is likely some level of correlation....

More than half of those with postgraduate experience (54%) have either consistently liberal political values (31%) or mostly liberal values (23%), based on an analysis of their opinions about the role and performance of government, social issues, the environment and other topics. Fewer than half as many postgrads – roughly 12% of the public in 2015– have either consistently conservative (10%) or mostly conservative (14%) values. About one-in-five (22%) express a mix of liberal and conservative opinions.

Among adults who have completed college but have not attended graduate school (approximately 16% of the public), 44% have consistently or mostly liberal political values, while 29% have at least mostly conservative values; 27% have mixed ideological views.

By contrast, among the majority of adults who do not have a college degree (72% of the public in 2015), far fewer express liberal opinions. About a third of those who have some college experience but do not have a bachelor’s degree (36%) have consistently liberal or mostly liberal political values, as do just 26% of those with no more than a high school degree. Roughly a quarter in each of these groups (28% of those with some college experience, 26% of those with no more than a high school education) have consistently conservative or mostly conservative values.

Of course, this is also interesting...perhaps somehow related to the view that "smart" people are more polarized in general?

Taking a roughly equal mix of liberal and conservative positions is far more prevalent among those with less education than those with at least a college degree. For instance, nearly half (48%) of those with a high school degree or less education express a mix of conservative and liberal opinions. That compares with just 22% of those with postgraduate experience.

And it seems to me that there are also other (relatively) very important distinctions related to the interaction between polarization and risk to our democracy, such as urban vs. rural, white vs. non-white, etc.

Also, what speaks more directly to me about the danger to our democracy about polarization, is the potential for an increasing prevalence of polarization (although I have some skepticism about how it is measured). I tend to doubt that greater risk to our democracy is associated with increased polarization is a function of people getting "smarter."

October 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Indeed, this graph from that article I linked might suggest that "smarter" people (as measured by cognitive assessments) are more polarized:

I find it interesting that the degree of change across educational levels seems much stronger with libz in most of those charts.

October 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

A final point, when I said above... W"ith the understanding that education levels isn't a terribly accurate proxy for assessing "smartness," but that there is likely some level of correlation".... it wasn't to suggest that I personally believe that more highly educated people are likely to be "smarter," merely that they may be likely to perform better on any variety of cognitive reasoning assessments.

October 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Well at a wild guess you will say your slides are evidence that the smart ones (by which you mean smart in a scientifically orientated way) are a menace, due to their amplified polarization in domains where as you term it, there is pollution of the science communication environment.

I think this would be a simplistic conclusion. I'm not sure that even in principle it could be either set of people. The SC environment got polluted as you put it, via the influences of cultures in conflict. But cultural entities are emergent phenomena, being a function of all social interactions and having features that no individual adherent possesses. So while there are stratified contributions, one must be wary about attribution of 'blame' for conflict at the level of individuals, or even sub-groups of individuals. And the stratification is not the fixed stratification of bees in a hive, so for instance the same person may have very different contributions in different conflict domains. Also, because cultures have been in conflict for many millennia at a minimum, the mechanisms via which this conflict occurs long pre-date science, which formal enterprise has become entangled with the same on a global scale only in recent centuries.

To know how cultural conflict works with this new entanglement, knowing how it worked before without it is a good start, for instance in competitive religions or the heretical splitting of a religion. Knowledgeable elites (and maybe cognitively more capable too by virtue of privileged environment, encouragement, training) typically perform similar polarizing roles (consensus policing, demonization of opposition, etc). E.g. priests.

Curiosity is generally considered an emotive response. Your slide 77 says that high SC Reps lean more towards a science consensus for GW than the Rep average, and more away from a science consensus than the Rep average for Fracking. If the scientific consensuses are your gold standard, one is more correct and one is more wrong as measured against that standard. In light of this, high SC is not countering increased polarization (I'm presuming per previous posts you still think this) but simply a producing a different and emotive response than high OSI, which may just as often be wrong as right. And given also that SC is not a reasoning proficiency anyhow, it could only mute the effects of increasing proficiency if it increased in tandem, which I presume is not the case.

So per your charts the smarties tend to split more within domains, and the curious tend to lean more one way. But over multiple domains the latter may perhaps be just as often the 'wrong' way as the 'right' way (after all they are not using reasoning, and how else will an emotive response fall, except randomly wrt to a scientific truth?) In both the cases you chart on slide 77, they happen to be leaning to the net most emotive narrative, which at least is consistent with an emotive response. But in any case they will help in some domains, and hinder in others. How is this any better than being split within any particular domain?

If curiosity is also a strong pre-cursor to becoming smart (i.e. motivating not only a search for knowledge, but a flexing and training and improvement of cognitive skills in order to digest and use that knowledge), then maybe most of your smart folks were curious too once, even if for a proportion the very gaining of knowledge has then caused their curiosity to diminish. And encouraging curiosity, whilst good, would likely lead to more smarts. Probably can't have one without the other. Nor would we want to try and perpetually freeze people in some kind of endless curiosity yet deny them the eventual food of knowledge, even though various religions and gnostic philosophies have learned this trick in order to harness the powerful emotive response, along with other emotions.

Cultural conflict is a societal level problem. While understanding what's happening inside individuals is critical and revealing, understanding the machine is no less so. And trying to point a finger at some cogs in the machine but not others, is a concept that in itself could go very badly wrong if it got popular. Stalin thought the smart guys were the problem too, which he proceeded to robustly correct in the intellectual sphere of Russian society and the army too.

It is a whole other kettle of fish that the *certainty* of imminent (decades) catastrophe from AGW is not supported by mainstream / orthodox science (e.g. the IPCC technical papers), let alone anything lukewarmer or skeptical. So this narrative doesn't straddle the skeptic / orthodox science divide, and represents far and away the strongest 'pollution' (to use your term) within the CC domain, promoted as it was (until the latest US administration) by virtually the whole western authority matrix. That pollution is sufficiently strong to not only condition the responses to GW related questions, yet over decades heavily pollute the science itself too. This leaves us unknowledgeable about the physical situation; whether ACO2 is good, bad or indifferent, the cultural narrative rules. So time may show that the high SC leaning, could be more towards the wrong conclusion in *both* the cases on slide 77. It was fifty years for the global consensus on saturated fats to collapse; social consensuses posing as settled science can be both robust and long lived.

October 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Andy West - 50 years for the saturated fats, but only 2 days for Scientific American to take down a story by Genna Reed and Emily Berman posted on October 18, 2017, entitled

>>"The Disinformation Playbook on Steroids, Trump Style"
"How the administration is using old tricks to put the public at risk"<<

Story still available on Google cache (if link not accessible for you, click directly on options at previous link or post here, will re-post full text).

Both authors appear affiliated with the Union of Concerned Scientists. No explanation for the takedown from anybody so far.

October 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Link drop:

Especially relevant to this blog is the page 4 data on groups vs. trust, especially "Country First Conservatives stand out for their less positive views of scientists."

October 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan -

On electoral dimensions related to that article:

October 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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