Science curiosity research program

From something I’m working on. More anon. . . .

The Science Curiosity Research Program

We propose a program for the study of science curiosity as a civic virtue in a polarized society.

1. It has been assumed (very reasonably) for many years that enlightened self-government demands a science-literate citizenry. Perversely, however, recent research has shown that all manner of reasoning proficiency—from cognitive reflection to numeracy, from actively open-minded thinking to science literacy—magnifies political polarization on policy-relevant science.

2. The one science-comprehension-related disposition that defies this pattern is science curiosity. In our research, we define science curiosity as the motivation to seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure. The Cultural Cognition Project Science Curiosity Scale (“SCS”) enables the precise measurement of this disposition in members of the general public.

Developed originally to promote the study of public engagement with science documentaries, SCS also has also been shown to mitigate politically motivated reasoning. Politically motivated reasoning consists in the disposition to credit or dismiss scientific evidence in patterns that reflect and reinforce individuals’ membership in identity-defining groups.  It is the psychological mechanism that underwrites persistent political controversy over climate change, handgun ownership, the HPV vaccine, nuclear waste disposal, and a host of other controversial issues.

Individuals who score high on SCS, however, display a remarkable degree of resistance to this dynamic.  Not only are they less polarized than other citizens with comparable political predispositions. They also are demonstrably more willing to search out and consume scientific evidence that runs contrary to their political predispositions.

The reason why is relatively straightforward.  Politically motivated reasoning generates a dismissive, identity-protective state of mind when individuals are confronted with scientific evidence that appears to undermine beliefs associated with their group identities.  In contrast, when one is curious, one has an appetite to learn something surprising and unanticipated—a state of mind diametrically opposed to the identity-protective impulses that make up politically motivated reasoning.

These features make science curiosity a primary virtue of democratic citizenship. To the extent that it can be cultivated and deployed for science communication, science curiosity has the power to quiet the impulses that deform human reason and that divert dispositions of scientific reasoning generally from their normal function of helping democratic citizens to recognize the valid policy-relevant science.

3.  Perfecting the techniques for cultivating and deploying science curiosity is the central aim of our proposed research program.  Certain of the projects we envision aim to instill greater science curiosity in primary and secondary school students as well as adults.  But still others seek to harness and leverage the science curiosity that already exists in democratic citizens.  Specifically, we propose to use SCS to identify the sorts of communications that arouse curiosity not only in the individuals who already display the most of this important disposition but also in those who don’t—so that when they are furnished evidence that challenges their existing beliefs, they will react not with defensive resistance but with the open-minded desire to know what science knows.

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