Science curiosity and identity-protective cognition … a glimpse at a possible (negative) relationship

So here is a curious phenomenon: unlike pretty much every other science-related reasoning disposition, science curiosity seems to avoid magnifying identity-protective cognition!

Let’s start with a bunch of culturally contested societal risks, ones on which political polarization can be assessed with the ever-handy Industrial Strength Risk Perception Measure:

Now consider:

For each risk, the paired panels chart the risk-perception impact of greater science comprehension and greater science curiosity (in each case “controlling for” the influence of the other), respectively.  They estimate those effects separately, moreover, for a “liberal Democrat” and for a “conservative Republican,” designations determined by reference to the study subejects’ scores on a composite political ideology and party-identification scale.

As science comprehension (measured with the Ordinary Science Intelligence assessment) increases, so too does the degree of polarization on politically contested risks involving climate change, gun possession, fracking, marijuana legalization, pornography, and the like.

That’s not a surprise.  The warping effect of identity-protective cognition on cognitive reflection, numeracy, science comprehension and all other manner of critical reasoning proficiency has been exhaustively chronicled, and lamented, in this blog.

But that’s not what happens as science curiosity increases.  On the contrary, in all cases, greater science curiosity has the same general risk-perception impact—in some cases enhancing concern, in some blunting it, and in others having no directional effect—for study respondents of politically diverse outlooks.

Science curiosity is being measured for these purposes with the CCP/Annenberg Public Policy Center “Science Curiosity Scale,” or SCS_1.0. 

SCS_1.0 was developed for use in the CCP/APPC “Evidence-based Science Filmmaking Initiative.” Previous posts have discussed the development and properties of this measure, including its ability to predict engagement with science documentaries and other forms of science information among diverse groups.

So has its relationship to random other non-science related activities, such as taking a peek at what goes on at gun shows and even cracking open a book on religion now & again.

But this feature of SCS_1.0—its apparent ability to defy the gravitational pull of identity-protective cognition on perceptions of disputed risks—is something I didn’t anticipate. . . .

Indeed, I really don’t want to give the impression that I “get” this, it makes “perfect sense,” etc. Or even that there’s necessarily a “there” there.

An observation like this is just corroboration of the fundamental law of the conservation of perplexitywhich refers to the inevitable tendency of valid empirical research to generate one new profound mystery (at least one!) for every mystery that it helps to make less perplexing (anyone who thinks “mysteries” are ever solved by empirical inquiry has a boring conception of “mystery” or, more likely, a misconception of how empirical research works).

But here are some thoughts:

1. It does in fact make sense to think of curiosity as the cognitive negation of motivated reasoning.  The latter disposition consists in the unconscious impulse to conform evidence to beliefs that serve some goal (like cultural identity protection) unrelated to figuring out the truth about some uncertain factual matter.  Curiosity, in contrast, is an appetite not only to know the truth but to be surprised by it: it consists in a sense of anticipated pleasure in being shown that the world works in a manner that is astonishingly different from what one had thought, and in being able to marvel at the process that made it possible for one to see that.

When one is in that state, the sentries of identity-protect are necessarily standing down.  The path is clear for truth to march in and enlighten . . . .

2. At the same time, these data are pretty baffling to me.  No way did I expect to see this.

The affinity between identity-protective cognition and critical reasoning, I’m convinced, reflects the role the former plays in the successful negotiation of social interactions.  Where positions on disputed issues of risk become entangled in social meanings that transform them into badges of membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups, it is perfectly rational, at the individual level, for people to adopt styles of information processing that conduce to formation of beliefs that express their tribal allegiances.

Indeed, not to attend to information in this manner would put normal people—one’s whose personal beliefs about climate change or fracking or gun control don’t have any material impact on the risks they or anyone else face—in serious peril of ostracism and ridicule within their communities.

I’d essentially come to the bleak, depressing, spirit-enervating conclusion, then, that the only reasoning disposition likely to blunt the force of identity-protective cognition was a social disability in the nature of autism. 

But now, for the 14 billionth time, I will have to rethink and reconsider. 

Because clearly the appetite to seek out and consume information about the insights human beings have acquired through the use of science’s signature methods of disciplined observation and inference is no reasoning disability.  And those who in who are most impelled to satisfy this appetite are clearly not using what they learn to forge even stronger links between their perceptions of how the world works and the views that express membership in their identity-defining affinity groups.

Or at least that’s one way to understand evidence like this.  Pending more investigation.

3.  All sorts of qualifications are in order.

a. For one thing, SCS_1.0 is a work in progress.  Additional tests to refine and validate it are in the works.

b. For another, science comprehension and science curiosity are not wholly unrelated! Actually, they aren’t strongly related; in the data set from which these observations come, the correlation is about 0.3. But that’s not zero!

I actually tested for “interactions” between science comprehension (as measured by OSI_2.0) and science curiosity (as measured by SCS_1.0), and between the two of them and political outlooks.  The interactions were all pretty close to zero; they wouldn’t affect the  basic picture I’ve shown you above (but I am happy to show more pictures—just tell me what you want to see).

Still I don’t think the effect of science curiosity on identity-protective cognition can be made sense of without closer, more fine-grained examination of how much it alters the trajectory of polarization at different levels of science comprehension.

c.  Also, the impact of science curiosity is interesting only because it doesn’t magnify polarization. It doesn’t make it go away, as far as I can tell.  That’s important—for the reasons stated.  But a reasoning disposition that generated convergence among individuals of diverse cultural outlooks on culturally contested risks (as science comprehension does on culturally uncontested ones) would be much more remarkable—and important.

We should be looking for that.  I’d say, though, that looking even harder at curiosity might help us detect if there is such a reasoning quality—the ”Ludwick factor” is the technical term   for those who’ve speculated on its possible existence . . .—and how it might be disseminated and stimulated.

For surely, that is a reasoning disposition the cultivation of which should be cultivated in the citizens of the Liberal Republic of Science.

But in the meantime, this unexpected, intriguing relationship can be contemplated by curious people with excitement and perplexity and with a desire to figure out even more about it.

So what do you think?

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