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Science literacy, science curiosity, and education

A science-curious commenter asked me what the relationship was between educational attainment and scores on the Ordinary Science Intelligence assessment (OSI) and on the Science Curiosity Scale (SCS), respectively.

I tried to entice him or her to make a prediction, so that we could have a proper WSMD? JA!, but he or she then fell silent.  I had the data ready to report, though, and figured they were interesting enough to share with the site's 12.3 billion readers (yes, we’re down 1.7 billion; suspiciously, subscriptions to the Gelman blog have increased by that amount).

Matching the pattern observed in relation to other demographic characteristics, the science-curiosity gap between individuals of relatively low and relatively high education levels is quite modest in comparison to the gap between these respective groups' OSI scores. (Consider, too, how much more informative, in a practical sense, the overlapping PDDs are compared to the regression-line plots.)

More evidence, then, that the social and economic conditions that generate inequality in science comprehension pose a much smaller barrier to being the sort of person who is awed by the insights of scientific inquiry. 

I think that’s pretty cool.

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Reader Comments (27)

"More evidence, then, that the social and economic conditions that generate inequality in science comprehension pose a much smaller barrier to being the sort of person who is awed by the insights of scientific inquiry.

I think that’s pretty cool."

Isn't it also more evidence that the sort of person who is awed by the insights of scientific inquiry isn't very capable of overcoming the social and economic conditions necessary to increase their science comprehension? That is, assuming greater science curiosity implies greater desire for science comprehension. Though, I guess it is possible that greater science curiosity does not imply greater desire for science comprehension. Would that still be pretty cool?

November 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

@Jonathan-- it is more likely that a person who cannot compute conditional probabilities had a bad math or science teacher in high school than that she is uninterested in learning science. But for sure, one doesn't have to be able to perform that task, or to be able to detect covariance, etc., or have any practical desire to learn them, in order to be awed by what human beings, using science's signature methods of disciplined observation & valid causal inference, have been able to discover about the workings of a very secretive universe.

November 8, 2018 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan - your last sentence is so blindingly true, but perhaps you don't realize its practical implications.

It explains why the left has been so utterly unsuccessful in selling measures to combat global warming. And populism. And any number of other topics, like support for illegal migrants.The smartest leftists understand and admit the general principle at work:

"...anti-Trump, anti-Brexit champions have found it easier to abandon reason for moral damnation."

Morality is variable and subjective. Reason is not.

November 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

I'm probably the only person here who finds this irresistibly funny, but will post it anyway:

Arthur Jones, former longtime member of the American Nazi Party (may have changed its name by now) ran on the Republican ticket in an Illinois district so gerrymandered that in the last election the incumbent Democrat ran unopposed. The Illinois Republican Party disavowed him completely; Democrats ridiculed him and said Jones will get only 2 votes, himself and his wife. Jones did not campaign or give speeches, and even so he got 57,000 votes, a quarter of the total.

For some reason the national press isn't reporting this.

November 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Even funnier is this result from Nevada - Republican who has been dead for over a month wins election.

November 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage


Your book got reviewed. At least I think it is a review - can't tell through the paywall.

November 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

PC metric draft paper posted by the author, Zach Goldberg, on Twitter:

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Ecoute -

Indeed, while often attributed to the Left, an argument can be made for its existence on the Right. That being said, for the purposes of explaining its relevance to the 2016 election, I limit the scope of analysis to its Left-Wing incarncation.

That seems rather silly to me. Indeed, Trump's campaign platform was built on massive planks of political correctness.

The author's endeavor seems rather akin to looking for whether dislike of Clinton, or dislike of libz, or wanting to build a wall, is associated with the outcomes of 2016. The author's thesis looks pretty tautological, IMO.

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Pubs over bots?:

“The differences between echo chambers involving leave and remain supporters can be explained by the distinct geographical clustering of their social networks where communication online represents part of their existing social relations.”

“It calls into question the assumption that echo chambers are a kind of disease created by social media, and instead suggests that people are bringing their pub conversations to online debate.”

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

One echo chamber that seems to persist in the US also shows how interpersonal influences have outsized effects vs. data:

with op-ed accompaniment here:

Maybe us lefties need to take our reps out for a bribe beer?

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

I don't know Goldberg, but as a matter of courtesy I posted a reply to his link on Twitter mentioning I would be re-posting his draft here.

PC is so loathed by all supporters of free speech because it's censorship. He does make the point that strong antipathy for PC is not identical to racism/misogyny/hatred for minorities/antisemitism etc, which is obvious. Whether he can come up with a metric for PC per se is doubtful, though.

Long before Orwell the PC police was identified by Thucydides - unless someone can find an earlier reference, this is it:

"Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected."

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Ecoute -

PC is so loathed by all supporters of free speech because it's censorship.

PC is a political tool used to advance ideological tribal warfare. No better example than Trump, who is a general of the "anti-PC" warriors who self-victimize and drama queen about their supposed censorship (which usually just translates to a blogger telling them to go write their comments somewhere else, or a free-market capitalist deciding what's best for their brand) even as they advocate for their own brand of PCism.

Trump's assignment of a leadership role concurrent with his constant whining about making it easier to sue for libel, and his constant snowflaking about how "unfair" it is thst he's criticized, and his constant hand-wringing about a "war in Christmas" because people use the expression "have a happy holiday, " is perhaps the funniest evidence of the politically expedient hypocrisy of "anti-pc" warriors.

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I searched for "deplorable" in that link Ecoute sent (haven't read it all yet), and found this:

On the other hand, through her adoption of PC rhetoric ('white privilege', 'implicit bias') and priggish delegitimization of Trump supporters ('deplorables'), Hillary Clinton amplified the urgency of this resistance.

Hence, one side thinks usage of terms like "white privilege", "implicit bias" and "deplorables" constitutes PC while the other side thinks criticism of such usage constitutes PC. Probably "deplorables" was the least PC term thrown around during the 2016 campaign, based on how much active political criticism it received from many diverse groups. As was the "guns, God, and gays" line from 2008.

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan -

Given today's developments, it may be time for me to retire my Raptors jersey!

. Probably "deplorables" was the least PC term thrown around during the 2016 campaign, based on how much active political criticism it received from many diverse groups.

Indeed. And many a snowflake rightwinger nearly plotzed in reaction.

On the other hand, we had the "nasty woman" exchange of insult and sensitivity. More evidence of the symmetry comes with the symmetrical embrace of the insults by those who are less snowflakey, as I was reminded today when I saw a "This nasty woman votes" bumper sticker (I've seen similar embrace of the "deplorable" branding on the right).

The author makes note of the arbitrariness of measuring pc as sensitivity on the left as opposed to the right , but then chooses to do it anyhow to create a metric for understanding the 2016 vote. I'm more inclined to think that such an arbitrary distinction leads nowhere.

It's interesting to think of the component that the author references as part of the definition of pc, by some: a means of protecting (historically) marginalized or victimized groups.

What's interesting about that is that the very rightwing "anti-pc" warriors who are so concerned about their terribly constrained ability to speak freely are largely the same rightwingers who question whether those historically marginalized and victimized groups were really all that marginalizsd and victimized (as opposed to just treated the way that their genetic inheritance merited) and who certainly argue that whatever the case historically, it is no doubt true that they, now, (as whites and/or white males and/or those poor in els, in western society) are the ones who hold the legitimate claim to being marginalized and victimized.

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

..those poor incels....

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Given today's developments... Indeed. But what of Fultz? Certainly, Butler will demand/get the lion share of minutes. And possibly a long term deal.

November 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

@Jonathan--thanks for noticing review. It turns out not to be fairly bland

November 11, 2018 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Jonathan--thanks for noticing review. It turns out to be fairly bland

November 11, 2018 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I think Goldberg is right in attributing the widespread decline of trust in "experts" to perceived PC censorship.

So it follows logically that the diligent collection of breaches of "norms" posted by NYU's law school >
> has the exact opposite effect to the one intended.

November 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Absolutely amazing last minute before Armistice came into effect in WWI, made by American artillery on the Moselle river using 6 seismographic recorders to determine direction and distance of incoming fire. Courtesy of War Museum, London.

November 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

This person claims to be a classicist:

"“The ancient world was deeply misogynistic – it was a time when there was no word for rape, feminism did not exist and women’s actions were determined by male relatives,”"

The Greek word is for rape is ἁρπαγή - can't think of the Latin offhand but it's whatever happened to those Sabine women abducted by Romans. And this "classicist" has never heard of Aristophanes, specifically his Lysistrata. In spite of this crass ignorance, she has actually written a book condemning the alt-right as misogynistic (women are about a third of us) and got the book published by a reputable press.

PC is completely out of control, evidently - but surely even The Guardian could locate someone other than "Nasheen Iqbal" to interview the author?

November 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Ecoute -

In spite of this crass ignorance, she has actually written a book condemning the alt-right as misogynistic (women are about a third of us)...

Good point.

In other good news, since women comprise some 50% of our larger society, sexism never existed (and we can eliminate homophobia as a concern by the ssme "logic" also).

November 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Ecoute -

I used to doubt your arguments about "the left" being disproportionately obsessed with political correctness, until I read about this:

I can't believe that "the left" can get away with something like that. Someone should shut SNL down.

Also, just more evidence that no humor can escape the gravitational pull of the black hole of political correctness in "the left."

Oh... Wait...

November 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I offer a sad counterpoint to your optimism, Dan. This data shows that college curriculum is effectively structured to promote science knowledge, but hardly effective at raising science curiosity. You would think that we should be more concerned about the latter than the former.

You may be interested to know that Dr. Liz Barnes, who studies religious cultural competence in evolution education at Arizona State, gave a talk at my uni's biology department recently. We seldom directly discuss interventions to change outlooks on this blog, but that's basically everything they do in her lab.

She reviewed several evidence-based practices leading to reducing students' perception of conflict between evolution and religion:
Acknowledge the existence of religious students who may struggle
Discuss and encourage reflection on personal views
Describe the spectrum of viewpoints
Teach the bounded nature of science
Show religious role models (challenge the identification)
Highlight potential compatibility

I raised the topic of science curiosity with her and she said it would be interesting to measure. Currently they only have anecdotal evidence of long-term outlook change following instructional modules designed to de-escalate perceived conflict between science and religion, and there is concern about reversion of short-term gains. We agreed that de-escalation of perceived conflict leading to enhanced curiosity in the long term is a straightforward and natural hypothesis to test.

November 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

Dypoon -

I think it isn't only college - and I'd suggest that actually, the groundwork is in place before students reach college, and if anything it might be less bad at the college level than in lower levels of education.

I've seen quite a bit of analyses to suggest that our standard educational paradigm tends to graduate high school students who look at learning as a passive process, where students transfer over responsibility to others to evaluate their educational development, which they do effectively by measuring how well students follow instructions to process material for which they have no particular interest or connection.

November 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Before the educators get down in the dumps over the lack of correlation between OSI and SC, note that there is another way to look at it: perhaps modern education has succeeded in teaching science to the non-SC so well that SC can't significantly overcome the effect. Furthermore, since SC is mostly a new category (in the ways that Dan has outlined it, somewhat different from its vernacular meaning), it is little wonder that education hasn't yet targeted it directly yet.

November 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Joshua: you're totally right about the process of inculcating science knowledge instead of science curiosity starting earlier than college. I was just looking at the presented data and comparing college to non-college, pointing out the difference between those two populations.

My SO who now teaches geology and biology at a community college says that your description is spot on. She's distressed by how her students are blown away by what college demands of them in terms of responsibility of achieving their own learning desires.


Here's a blast from the past, a 1976 article on what college students like in teachers:

You look at what makes students rate science and math teachers highly, and the top 4 on the list is:

Is aware of whether students are following or not
Answers impromptu questions well
Uses multiple examples to explain difficult concepts
Increases students' interest in the material

These factors beat all the others, including "achieving course objectives" and "returning homework promptly".

Note that that 4th one is pretty much SC as Dan tried to measure it. (Of course, #2 is arguably a real test of the instructor's science knowledge.) So our knowledge of student demand for teachers to increase student SC has been there for a while, at least 40 years. Dan's findings are just the newest tip of the iceberg. And it really seems that American colleges (and high schools) have failed to prioritize it. We really ought to be doing better by now...

Of course you can bring up prioritization, fixed resources, etc. as reasons for focusing on knowledge attainment over curiosity,... and on the other hand you can bring up Jeff Sandefer and his ideas for higher ed reform. He would argue that the student is the client and the customer ought to be served. But I'm glad that Dan's now in a position to make the argument that the public benefits of education are better achieved if education builds curiosity instead of knowledge!

November 17, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

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