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Bookends in the study of individual differences in politically biased comprehension of science

Did a talk at the University of Oklahoma Center for Risk & Crisis Management last Thurs. The questions & discussion were really great.

Here are the main points, rationally reconstructed, that I made (slides here).

1. We know a lot about politically motivated reasoning (PMR) as a “main effect” in the processing of policy-relevant facts.  Generally speaking PMR refocuses individual attention away from “truth-convergent” and toward identity-protective styles of information processing, the goal of which is to promote formation of beliefs that effectively express individuals’ membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups.

2. We don’t know as much about individual differences in PMR.  That is, researchers so far have not paid as much attention to dispositions or personality traits that might either accentuate or mitigate the impact of PMR on information processing.

if you have one last click in your life-time supply, this is where to spend it!3. One thing we do know something about, however, is politically motivated system 2 reasoning: Various forms of cognitive proficiency—ones that no doubt help individuals to determine the truth in most settings—seem to aggravate or magnify PMR.  A good number of observational studies suggest this.  And CCP’s “Motivated Numeracy” study supplies experimental data indicating that individuals high in dispositions essential to science comprehension use cognitive proficiency to form and persist in identity-evincing beliefs.

4. There is also at least one measure of reasoning style that appears to have the opposite effect—i.e., that appears to constrain PMR.  That disposition is science curiosity.  Other science-comprehension-related dispositions seem to magnify PMR as the strength of those dispositions increase. The general effect of increased science curiosity, however, is the same on individuals’ of varying political outlooks. In addition, individuals who score highest on the Science Curiosity Scale (SCS) scores also do not polarize as much as their scores on the Ordinary Science Intelligence assessment increases.

5. What are the implications of all this? 

Well, first, it is a mistake to read this literature to imply that increased science comprehension is “bad.” The problem isn’t with that disposition; it is with a science communication environment that has become infused with antagonistic social meanings that transform positions on disputed decision-relevant forms of science with membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups.  The upshot, then, is that we should identify means of protecting the science communication environment from being polluted with such meanings so that we can get the benefit of the insights of those citizens who are most proficient in science comprehension.

click me! You'll be astonishedSecond, we should be exploring how science curiosity can be used to help detoxify a polluted science communication environment.  Can we foster science curiosity in the population, either as a fixed trait or as a state that characterizes their engagement with controversial issues?  Can we feature the open-mindedness of individuals high in science curiosity as models of the way in which citizens in a pluralistic self-governing community should reason?

You tell me!

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