Science literacy *plus* science curiosity--a research program for enlightened self-government (lecture summary & slides)
Wednesday, February 14, 2018 at 3:31AM
Dan Kahan

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).


Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (
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