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Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing

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Entries by Dan Kahan (926)


Guest post: early interest in science predicts long-term trust of scientitsts

Once again, we bring you the cutting edge of #scicomm science from someone who can actually do it! Our competitors can only watch in envy.

The Enduring Effects of Scientific Interest on Trust in Climate
Scientists in the U.S.

Matt Motta (@matt_motta)

Image result for matt motta minnesotaAmericans’ attitudes toward scientists are generally positive. While trust in the scientific community has been on the decline in recent years on the ideological right, Americans are usually willing to defer to scientific expertise on a wide range of issues.

Americans’ attitudes toward climate scientists, however, are a notable exception. Climate scientists are amongst the least trusted scientific authorities in the U.S., in part due to low levels of support from Republicans and Independents.

A recent Pew study found that less than a third (32%) of Americans believe that climate scientists’ research is based on the “best available evidence,” most of the time. Similar numbers believe that climate scientists are mostly influenced by their political leanings (27%) and the desire to advance their careers (36%).

Why do (some) Americans distrust climate scientists? This is an important question, because (as I have shown in previous research) negativity toward scientists is associated with the rejection of scientific consensus on issues like climate change. It is also associated with support for political candidates (like George Wallace and Donald Trump) that are skeptical of the role experts play in the policymaking process.

Figuring out why Americans distrust climate scientists may be useful for devising new strategies to rekindle that trust. Previous research has done an excellent job documenting the effects of political ideology on trust in climate scientists. Few, however, have considered the effect of Americans’ interest in science and knowledge of basic scientific principles – both of which have been linked to positivity toward science and scientists.

In a study recently published at Nature Climate Change, I demonstrate that interest in scientific topics at young ages (12-14)  is associated with increased trust in climate scientists decades later in adulthood, across the ideological spectrum. 

In contrast, I find little evidence that young adults’ levels of science comprehension (i.e., science knowledge and quantitative skills) increase trust later in life. To the extent that they do, the effects of science knowledge and quantitative ability tend to be strongly conditioned by ideology.

In addition to considering the effects of science interest and comprehension on trust in climate scientists, my work offers two additional points of departure from previous research. First, few have investigated these potential determinants of attitudes toward climate scientists in young adulthood. This is surprising, because previous research has found that this is a critical stage in the development of attitudes toward science.

Second, fewer still have studied how these factors might interact with political ideology to shape opinion toward climate scientists. As readers of this blog might expect, Americans who are highly interested in science should exhibit higher levels of trust across the ideological divide. This is consistent with research suggesting that science curiosity encourages open-minded engagement with scientific issues – thereby increasing acceptance of science and scientific consensus.

In contrast, science comprehension should polarize opinions about climate scientists along ideological lines. If science knowledge and quantitative skills increase trust in climate scientists, we might expect this effect to be greater for liberals – who tend to be more accepting of climate science than conservatives. Again familiar to readers of this blog, this point is consistent with research showing that people who “think like scientists” tend to use their skills to reinforce existing social, political, and cultural group allegiances.

Using panel data from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY) I model American adults’ trust in climate scientists (in 2011) as a function of their science interest and comprehension measured at ages 12-14 (in 1987). I structure these models hierarchically because respondents were cluster sampled at the school level, and control for several potentially-relevant demographic factors (e.g., race, sex). For a more-technical discussion of how I do this, please consult the study’s methods section (just after the discussion).

I measure Americans’ trust in scientists using self-reported measures of trust in information from four different different groups; science professors, state environmental departments, NASA/NOAA, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). I also look at a combined index of all four.

I then measure science interest using a self-reported measure of respondents’ self-reported interest in “science issues.” I also operationalize science comprehension using respondents’ scores on standardized science knowledge and quantitative ability tests.

The results suggest that self-reported science interest at young ages is associated with trust in climate scientists about two decades later (see the figure below). On average, science interest in young adulthood is associated with about a 6% increase in trust in climate scientists. Young adults’ science knowledge and quantitative skills, on the other hand, bear little association with trust in climate scientists measured years later. 

The effects of science interest in young adulthood hold when factoring levels of science interest measured in adulthood into the model. I find that science interest measured in young adulthood earlier explains more than a third (36%) of the variable’s cumulative effect on trust in climate scientists.

Critically, and perhaps of most interest to readers of this blog, I find that the effects of interest are not conditioned by political ideology. Interacting science interest with political ideology, I find that young adults who are highly interested in science are more trusting of climate scientists – irrespective of their ideological allegiances.

In contrast, the effect of science comprehension in young adulthood on trust in climate scientists is significantly stronger for ideological liberals. This was true in nearly every case, for both science knowledge and quantitative skills. The lone exception is that the interaction between quantitative skills and ideology fell just short of one-tailed significance in the NASA/NOAA model (p = 0.13), and two-tailed significance in the IPCC model (p = 0.06).

As I discuss in the paper, these results suggest an exciting path forward for rekindling public trust in climate scientists. Efforts to boost scientific interest in young adulthood may have lasting effects on trust, decades later.

What these efforts might look like, of course, is an open question. Board and video games aimed at engaging young audiences could potentially be effective. A key challenge, however, will be to figure out how to use these tools to engage young adult audiences that are not already highly interested in scientific topics. 

I also think that this research underscores the usefulness of longitudinal approaches to studying Americans’ attitudes toward science. Future research should investigate whether or not these dynamics hold for Millennials and Generation Z (who tend to be more accepting of scientific consensus on climate change than older generations) is an interesting question, and one future longitudinal research should attempt to answer. 



Weekend update: Precis for "are smart people ruining democracy? What about curious ones?"

This is a follow up on  this:

Whence political polarization over seemingly complex empirical issues essential to enlightened self-government? 

The answer is not what many smart peolple surmise.  Lots of public opinion analysts, including a large number who hold university appointments, assume the phenomenon of polarization originates in the public's over-reliance on heuristic reasoning (the fast, intuitive, emotional sort that Kahneman calls "System 1”).

As plausible as this conjecture might be, though, it turns out to be wrong.  Flat out, indisputably, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt wrong. 

An already immense and still growing body of research in the decision sciences demonstrates that the citizens most disposed to engage in conscious, effortful information processing (Kahneman’s “slow,” “System 2” thinkers) are in fact the most polarized ones on the facts of climate change, gun control, fracking, nuclear power, etc. 

It would be a silly interpretation of these data to mean “smart” citizens are “ruining democracy.” But what isn’t silly at all is the conclusion that our “science communication environment” has become polluted by the entanglement of positions on policy-relevant facts, on the one hand, and individuals’ cultural identities, on the other.

If one tries to make people choose between knowing what science knows and being who they are, they will predictably choose the latter.  It’s that simple.  When that happens, moreover, democracy loses the contribution that its most cognitively proficient members normally make to guiding their peers into stances consistent with the best available evidence on real threats to their wellbeing and how to counteract them.

But the news is not relentlessly bad:  New work shows that culturally diverse citizens who are curious about science display signs of immunity to the “identity-protective cognition” dynamic that I have just described.

Understanding why their interest in science protects citizens from the baleful consequences of a polluted science communication environment—and how that dynamic might be self-consciously  harvested and deployed within democratic societies—is now one of the most urgent objectives of the new “science of science communication.”


What's more disgusting--fecal transplants or semi-automatic guns? (Data collected far in advance of Las Vegas and other mass shootings)

Hmmmm... Makes you wonder, doesn't it? 

More "tomorrow."


Still on pace for 61-plus lecture/workshop presentations in 2018 (& I'm not even using testosterone or HGH; or at least not a whole lot)


My visit to the John Jost Lab at NYU--comment/question interludes plus a tiny portion of asymmetry

One of the really fun things I did recently was to give a presentation to John Jost's lab at NYU.

My talk was similar to one I've been doing recently on the respective roles of "science comprehension" and "science curiosity" as "epistemic virtues" in a democratic society (slides here).

The one innovation in the presentation was the introduction of the designated "comment/question interludes":


This is a good device, I think, where the workshop uses an "interactive" format that allows questions throughout the talk. I don't like that format much. The continuous, self-propagating flow of queries can easily wreck the organization of the speaker's remarks and block him or her from even reaching the most important material (economics workshops are infamous for this).

But sprinkled abundantly and strategically through the presentation, and announced at the start of the talk, the "interludes" kept the show going in a basically linear direction and at an appropriately brisk speed.

Or at least so it seemed!

As you likely gathered, the talk was not about the "asymmetry thesis."  

Nevertheless, the issue came up a few times, mainly in relation to slides like these:




These pdd's were derived from logistic regression models that had left_right political orientations & (in the case of the "Motivated Numeracy") appropriate cross-product interaction terms. 

I used to believe that models such as those aren't appropriate for testing the "asymmetry thesis," b/c they assume a "linear" impact for right/left political outlooks in log-transformed space.

But now I'm less sure, in part b/c of papers that convincingly contend that non-linear regression models (e.g., logistic & ordered logistic), & in particular ones that include cross-product interaction terms, support inferences about real-world non-linearities once the log-transformed values are transformed back into predicted probabilities.  Indeed, the papers in question insist that such re-transformations, accompanied w/ appropriate graphic illustrations, are the only thing that support such inferences--the regression coefficients in such models are not informative on their own (Karaca‐Mandic, Norton, & Dowd, 2012; Ai & Norton, 2003; Greene, 2010; Powers, 2005; Mitchell & Chen, 2005)....

Gratifyingly, this point was not lost on the workshop audience, all of whose members, Jost included, recognized that determining which methods to use to investigate asserted "asymmetries" in politically motivated reasoning is a complicated issue.

Face-to-face can often generate progress that dueling studies elide.... And vice versa!


Ai, C. & Norton, E.C. Interaction terms in logit and probit models. Econ Lett 80, 123-129 (2003).

Greene, W. Testing hypotheses about interaction terms in nonlinear models. Econ Lett 107, 291-296 (2010).

Karaca‐Mandic, P., Norton, E.C. & Dowd, B. Interaction terms in nonlinear models. Health services research 47, 255-274 (2012).

Mitchell, M.N. & Chen, X. Visualizing main effects and interactions for binary logit models. Stata Journal 5, 64-82 (2005).

Powers, E.A. Interpreting logit regressions with interaction terms: an application to the management turnover literature. Journal of Corporate Finance 11, 504-522 (2005).


Interesting talk coming up today -- populist modes of presidential nomination & ascension of fascist populism

Rick Pildes, visiting Yale from NYU this semester, will give this paper at Law School's weekly, Monday faculty-workshop:

The storyline, not so surprisingly, is that advent of democratization of presidential nomination process has resulted in a growing number of inexperienced, ideologically extreme general election candidates like, oh, D. Trump.

Makes sense.  But in my view, so do other impressionistic accounts.

One is that the incidence of genuinely populist, anti-establishment candidates (for sure Generalissimo Trump) is still not the norm--but rather something that happens every 4 general elections or so, in between which we still see more elite-approved candidates (from GHW Bush to Romney, from Mondale to H. Clinton). It's unclear too whether this rate of "populist" presidential nominations is all that different from what we saw in period before both parties adopted rules that "electorize" the  nomination process. 

Another explantation is that any trend toward more and more populist, anti-elite candiates tracks growing value-factionalizzation in electorae as a whole.

I'm sure Pildes will be presenting a very persuasive argument, but I still worry about crediting narrative, underdetermined accounts (of this issue & zillions of others) in absence of empirical proofs that fit the proposed account & that furnish more evidence for believing it rather than plausible rival(s).

Maybe, in my capacity as "workshop chair," for which I am handsomely paid iwith the right to ask first question, I'll ask Pildes about this. (Or maybe I'll just keep my mouth filled with cookies, also my prerogative as faculty-workshop Generalissimo.)



WSMD? JA! Political orientation, religiosity & vaccine-risk perceptions

This is approximately the 417,522nd episode in the insanely popular CCP series, "Wanna see more data? Just ask!," the game in which commentators compete for world-wide recognition and fame by proposing amazingly clever hypotheses that can be tested by re-analyzing data collected in one or another CCP study. For "WSMD?, JA!" rules and conditions (including the mandatory release from defamation claims), click here.

Inspired by "yesterday's"™ post on how  the Ordinary Science Intelligence (OSI) assessment relates to nuclear power risk perceptions, @Bjarke asked: 


I solicited hypotheses and got one from @Colin--


--and another from @Bjarke: