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Science literacy *plus* science curiosity--a research program for enlightened self-government (lecture summary & slides)

Back from nearly a week in Ann Arbor, Michigan. On Friday & Sat attended symposium on “values, science & the public” convened by the Univ. of Mich.’s Philosophy Dep’t. I then spent Monday at the Institute for Social Research.

This is a condensed recap of the lecture I gave at ISR: “Science comprehension without curiosity is no virtue, and curiosity without comprehension no vice” (slides here).

I.  One aim of the CCP/APPC initiative on science of science communication is to integrate civic science literacy –Jon Miller’s decades’ long project (e.g., Miller 1998) – with John Dewey’s program to promote science curiosity.  Curiosity, Dewey (1910) argued, is essential not only to motivate acquisition of scientific literacy but also to activate citizens’ science comprehension when needed to make informed personal or public judgments.  To that, I would add that science curiosity is also necessary to temper the pernicious impact of identity-protective cognition, a dynamic that threatens to deny society the benefits of their citizens’ science literacy.

II.  Motivated System 2 reasoning (MS2R) is one of the ways in which science comprehension can be recruited into the service of a defensive and closed-minded style of cognition.. Contrary to the dominant “bounded rationality thesis,” higher proficiency in the types of critical reasoning essential to science comprehension doesn’t diminish polarization; on the contrary, it magnifies it.  Citizens  high in one or another critical reasoning proficiency use that endowment to ferret out information that supports their cultural group’s positions and to rationalize dismissal of everything else (Kahan 2015; Kahan et al. 2017a).

III. Science curiosity, in contrast, offsets MS2R.  Science curiosity directly negates the mental orientation associated with MS2R: whereas the latter generates a defensive, dismissive posture toward identity-threatening evidence, the former creates an appetite for surprising information that defies one’s expectations.  Because people who are disposed to be curious about science are more likely to expose themselves to information that challenges their political predispositions, they are less prone to polarization, and less likely to form opposing factions, as their science comprehension increases (Kahan et al. 2017b).

IV.  Science curiosity thus performs a critical role in determining the impact of higher levels of science comprehension.  Dewey, again, credited curiosity with citizens’ acquisition of scientific insight and with their reliable apprehension of the occasions for its deployment. The studies featured in this lecture tell us that science curiosity also does something else: it blocks the use of scientific reasoning to promote beliefs that signal diverse citizens’ membership in and loyalty to one or another opposing cultural group. The entanglement of reason in this dynamic is arguably the greatest threat to enlightened self-government that our society now faces.

V. What now? I have described an ambitious project—to integrate Miller’s research on scientific literacy with Dewey’s attention to science curiosity.  However, the tools at our disposal—including principally the CCP/APPC Science Curiosity Scale—are now suited for making at best only a modest contribution to that goal.  More work is necessary, for one thing, to improve SCS and to make its administration feasible for diverse audiences in diverse settings. Armed with such an instrument, researchers will then need to test various procedures for activating curiosity, particularly in citizens who aren’t as spontaneously curious as the ones we’ve focused on in our studies to date. Conducted initially in the lab, such research will then need to be reproduced in the field—indeed, in the numerous fields, from education to mass science communication to democratic politics, in which citizens come to know what science knows.

As far as we have come based on Miller’s research, we have just as far to go to understand how to enjoy the full benefits of a citizenry as science literate as the one Miller’s research envisions.


Miller, J.D. The measurement of civic scientific literacy. Public Understanding of Science 7, 203-223 (1998).

Dewey, J. How We Think (Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1910).

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Dawson, E.C. & Slovic, P. Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government. Behavioural Public Policy 1, 54-86 (2017a).

Kahan, D.M., Landrum, A., Carpenter, K., Helft, L. & Hall Jamieson, K. Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing. Political Psychology 38, 179-199 (2017b).

Kahan, D.M. The Politically Motivated Reasoning Paradigm, Part 2: Unanswered Questions. in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015).


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Reader Comments (118)


March 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan -

Link no worky.. Was this it?

Hopefully you have a non-paywalled version?

I notice now that Trump is into "picking winners and losers" with the new steel and aluminum tariffs.

Will Trump put to rest the kinds of matrices that Dan and other use to divide the public by ideological outlook, under the view that they have some kind of real external validity?

Will the legions of putative "free market"/"small government" virtue signalers start abandoning Trump in droves in response to his espoused views on gun control and trade? Methinks not - reinforcing the argument that it isn't ideology that drives polarization, but rather arbitrarily constrained tribalism.

The one good side of Trump is that he is a perfect real world, longitudinal sociological experiment.

March 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Ok - this is interesting:

But the reaction was noticeably less diplomatic on the Trump-friendly part of the internet. Breitbart labelled Trump “The Gun Grabber” and accused him of ceding the Democrats’ “Wish List.” The article had nearly 16,000 comments, with the top-rated comment calling the gun control proposals “an outright betrayal by this president of the constitution and everyone of us who elected him to stand up for it.”

But if Breitbart commentators were outraged, it was nothing compared to r/The_Donald. The pro-Trump subreddit and one of the biggest internet communities supporting the president. There, Trump’s bipartisan meeting triggered a fury which The_Donald posters took out on both the president and each other. “What the actual fuck was that? That was certainly not 4D chess pedes,” one user named malikobama1 posted. “That was honestly just a terrible move. Between that an immigration my patience is truly wearing thin.”

“I really hope Trump is doing this to our guns just cos he’s weak enough to falter after being paid by the Dems. This is pathetic,” wrote smurfkipz. “Does this guy even hold any values at all or just money?” Meanwhile, “FitFinanceFella” paused for a moment to wish Hope Hicks — whom he wasn’t sure whether or not lurked on The_Donald — the best of luck in her future endeavors.

The amount of anger made the moderators on r/The_Donald step in and remove a copious amount of comments from the thread, including those from longtime pro-Trump posters. According to Removeddit, nearly 40 percent of the comment thread was removed by the subreddit’s moderators, while four percent was deleted.

Regarding that last detail, what is the difference between "removed" and "deleted?"

Anyway, this will be an interesting portion of the the Trump sociological experiment. Will Trump just walk all of this back? Maybe, maybe he was just throwing shit out there as a distraction and will restore order and mutual love in the Trump/Trump base universe. Or maybe he won't walk it back but the immediate upset will fade over time and the mutual love state will be restored.

Or maybe, is it possible, perhaps, that there will be an actual fissure opened up because Trump and his supporters will remain consistent?

My magic 8-ball says, "Don't count on it" when I ask whether that is going to happen.

Oh, and this is for my friend ecoute:

The_Donald is an incredibly important part of the pro-Trump internet ecosystem. It has nearly 600,000 subscribers, and acts as a key node between more obscure, hateful sites like 4chan’s politically incorrect board and Gab and more well-known social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. During the election, Donald Trump hosted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on the site, and the sub-reddit mobilized on several occasions to spread pro-Trump memes and comb through the hacked DNC emails.

But the site also has a penchant for conspiracy theories and threats of violence — which violates Reddit’s content policies. During a Question & Answer session last December, one user linked 45 different examples of violent comments on The_Donald, all less than 30 days old. They included posts like “shoot Muslims on sight,” “death to all leftists,” “Deport the dreamers, hang the politicians who support them,” and so on. But even with these examples of violence, and Reddit having to overhaul its voting system to prevent The_Donald spam, the subreddit remains active.

March 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Just to add, it's also fun to watch Demz shifting on the integrity of Sessions.

March 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

This comment thread is spectacular. Fantasies about what the reaction will be when the swat teams come to your house to get your guns.

March 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Go Millennials!:

March 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan


"Link no worky.. Was this it?

Hopefully you have a non-paywalled version?"

The link works for me. Yes, it gets to the non-paywalled version of that article. I think if you look it up in, you'll find the non-paywalled version (from as well.

"The one good side of Trump is that he is a perfect real world, longitudinal sociological experiment."

Yeah, the type that would violate any board of ethics this side of Little Albert.

March 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

More evidence that "social science research" consists of rediscovering the blindingly obvious:
".. Our findings highlight body odour disgust as a new and promising domain in political psychology research. Authoritarianism and BODS might be part of the same disease avoidance framework, and our results contribute to the growing evidence that contemporary social attitudes might be rooted in basic sensory functions."

Orwell observed the same "new" phenomenon in The Road to Wigan Pier - and seems to have thought it the main obstacle to a genuine communist takeover. The Royal Society researchers correlated it with support for president Trump - arguably the same thing :)

"..–the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling. Race-hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot.

You can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks– habitually stinks, I mean. However well you may wish him, however much you may admire his mind and character, if his breath stinks he is horrible and in your heart of hearts you will hate him....."

March 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

NPR has gone off the deep end - turns out all 300,000,000 + guns in the US really belong to Russian bots:

March 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Best study on diversity, strangely fallen off public mention:

March 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

No, this is not from The Onion (I checked) it's from Imperial College, London:

March 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Vox does a nice piece on a RAND report on gun policy that contains a motivated cognition test (of sorts) of gun policy experts:

There’s some obvious disagreement here. Those in the more restrictive camp said that restrictive policies would reduce homicides and more permissive measures would have the opposite effect. Those on the more permissive side said that restrictive policies would have little to no effect, while permissive policies would reduce homicides.

And if you implemented all 15 policies included in the survey, both sides said that gun homicides would fall.

March 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan - the RAND people do say they claim no scientific validity for their "back of the envelope" calculations, a conclusion strangely left out of your post.

But I'm happy to add gun control to the list of phenomena endowed with scientific "cerainty".

So far list includest the "settled science" of climate change, and "race science" (that's a term), neither of which requires further analysis since the results are known (how?) in advance.
"Race science isn’t going away any time soon. Its claims can only be countered by the slow, deliberate work of science and education. And they need to be – not only because of their potentially horrible human consequences, but because they are factually wrong.."

Truly this thread has been enormously helpful in making me realize that the reason I keep so many guns is that I'm probably a Russian bot, but my situation may improve by going dirty, eating magic mushrooms, and acquiring the telepathic talents necessary to avoid facts with "potentially horrible human consequences". Magic!

March 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage


...the RAND people do say they claim no scientific validity for their "back of the envelope" calculations...

I am confused about whether the "back of the envelope" calculations belong to the RAND researcher extrapolating the effects, or to the gun policy expert subjects of the test themselves being asked to do so. But, since the next line is:

So the exact percentages in the maps should not be taken too literally, but the general trends do at least give some guidance for where experts land on these issues.

it still seems to be a good motivated reasoning test. And, the accompanying essay on the RAND site contains a shout-out to Dan:

As Dan Kahan at Yale University and others have shown, disagreements about factual matters concerning gun policy or other science controversies may persist even when credible evidence is available; people may become strongly motivated to reject factual claims that contradict their or their social groups' long-held beliefs, especially when those beliefs have become central to the group's identity. Nevertheless, the fact that gun policy debates appear to be grounded in disagreement about the effects of policies rather than about their objectives suggests an important role for the scientific study of gun laws, especially where evidence is currently weak.

As for your "settled science" eye-roll - doesn't apply at all, since the main takeaway from the RAND report is that more research is desperately needed. Which is still a swipe at the NRA's backed defunding of gov't sponsorship of such research.

March 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan


If racial IQ differences were significant, they still probably wouldn't overcome "luck" (combined exogenous factors):

March 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan


Facts are and remain the same for all.

But if you persist in mistaking a warning shot for an "eye-roll" I have nothing further to say.

March 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

Cards Against Humanity is once again putting their spin on motivated reasoning research, this time surveying registered dems:

with just one failure-to-replicate:

March 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

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