Science curiosity & climate change (de)polarization (new paper)

Consider four propositions of ascending curiousness.

  1. Increasing science curiosity is associated with greater acceptance of human-caused climate change in the general population.
  2. This effect holds regardless of political outlooks
  3. Increasing science curiosity counteracts the association between increased science comprehension and and political polarization on societal risks such as climate change and fracking.
  4. As science curiosity goes up, individuals of all political outlooks become more interested in engaging information contrary to their political predispositions on climate change.

Proposition (1) is kind of interesting, but until it is combined with proposition (2), it doesn’t tell one much of anything.  A population-wide association between some disposition and a belief or attitude is interesting only if there isn’t significant variation in that relationship among different sorts of people. If there is, then the population-wide effect obscures that and invites specious inferences about how the disposition in question influences the relevant belief or attitude.

Let’s call the class of specious inferences the “Pat” fallacy: because “Pat,” who is “average” along every conceivable dimension, doesn’t exist, it is a meaningless exercise to treat how some disposition in “Pat” affects “Pat’s” beliefs, attitudes, etc., if in fact relevant dimensions of identity affect the relationship of the disposition to beliefs, attitudes, etc., in real-life, truly existing people.

But once we know that there is a uniform relationship between some disposition and some belief or attitude (or one that is uniform in relation to some meaningful aspect of individuals’ identities), then we can start to assess the significance of that.

The clue to the significance here is revealed by (3).  We know (because it’s been shown 15×10^3 times) that pretty much every conceivable reasoning disposition relevant to science comprehension magnifies rather than ameliorates political polarization on societal risks.  That happens because where positions on a risk or like fact become badges of membership in and loyalty to one or another tribal group, people will face strong psychic pressure to use their reasoning proficiencies to filter information in a manner that promotes their beliefs to the ones that that predominate in their groups.

Science curiosity is a reasoning disposition that can reasonably be understood to be integral to science comprehension. So one might expect it to magnify polarization on issues like climate change, too.

But it doesn’t. It has the opposite effect!

Why? Why?? Why???

This is the question that the 14 billion readers of this blog were left to grapple with about 5 mos ago when propositions 1-3, which were observed in Study No. 1 of the Cultural Cognition Project/Annenberg Public Policy Center “Science of Science Filmmaking Initiative.”

One conjecture was that science-curious individuals might be using their reason in a way that counteracts the usual consequences of politically motivated reasoning (PMR).

Generally speaking, PMR is associated with biased information search: that is, partisans tend not only to fit their assessments of information to their predispositions, but to focus their attention on information sources that can be expected to confirm rather than challenge the positions that cohere with their political outlooks (Hart, Albarracín, et al. 2009)..

But scientifically curious people have an appetite to be surprised by the insights generated by the use of science’s signature methods of disciplined observation, measurement, and inference.  That appetite might impel them, unconsciously, to expose themselves more readily than their less curious political peers to expose themselves to information that is contrary to their predispositions.  If so, they might end up with perceptions of risk that are at least a bit closer to those of their political opposites who are scientifically curious and who are doing the same thing.

That was the animating hypothesis of an experiment, the outcome of which is the basis of proposition 4.  In that experiment, we—my collaborators at CCP and APPC—tested just how readily partisans would expose themselves to surprising scientific evidence on climate change when that evidence was contrary to their political predispositions (Kahan, Landrum, Carpenter, Helft & Jamieson in press).

We found that individuals who were low to moderate in curiosity wouldn’t do it. They opted for “familiar” evidence supportive of the position associated with their own political outlooks.

But highly curious subjects behaved differently. Confronted with the chance to peruse some surprising evidence that challenged their existing views, they went for it.

I guess they just couldn’t resist!

What exactly did we do to elicit this observation? Well, I’ll tell you about that “tomorrow.”

Or if you are just so curious you can’t wait until then, you can check out our new CCP/APPC Science of Science Communication Initiative paper, “Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing” for details!


Hart, W., Albarracín, D., Eagly, A.H., Brechan, I., Lindberg, M.J. & Merrill, L. Feeling validated versus being correct: a meta-analysis of selective exposure to information. Psychological bulletin 135, 555 (2009).

Kahan, D.M., Landrum, A.R., Carpenter, K., Helft, L. & Jamieson, K.H. Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing. Advances in Political Psychology  (in press).

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