Browse Papers

Rumors of the “Non-Replication” of the “Motivated Numeracy Effect” are Greatly Exaggerated

This paper does three things. First, it describes the design defects (principally, the lack of statistical power) that make it misleading for Ballarini & Sloman (2017) to claim that they “failed to replicate” the results of Kahan, Peters et al. (2017). Second, it presents the positive results of our own replication study. Third, it discusses the vitiation of the utility of replications in social psychology as a progressive science when researchers report “nonreplications” without the “faithful recreation of a study with high statistical power” (Brandt, Ijezman, et al. 2014, p. 217).

Misconceptions, Misinformation, and the Logic of Identity-Protective Cognition

This paper supplies a compact survey of the empirical literature on misconceptions of and misinformation about decision-relevant science. The incidence and impact of misconceptions and misperceptions, the article argues, are highly conditional on identity protective cognition. Identity protective cognition refers to the tendency of culturally diverse individuals to selectively credit and dismiss evidence in patterns that reflect the beliefs that predominate in their group. On issues that provoke identity-protective cognition, the members of the public most adept at avoiding misconceptions of science are nevertheless the most culturally polarized. Individuals are also more likely to accept misinformation and resist the correction of it when that misinformation is identity-affirming rather than identity-threatening. Effectively counteracting these dynamics, the paper argues, requires more than simply supplying citizens with correct information. It demands in addition the protection of the science communication environment from toxic social meanings that fuse competing understandings of fact with diverse citizens’ cultural identities.

Rationality and Belief in Human Evolution

This paper examines two opposing theories of disbelief in evolution. One, the “bounded rationality” account, attributes disbelief to the inability of individuals to suppress the strongly held intuition that all functional systems, including living beings, originate in intentional agency. The other, the “expressive rationality” account, holds that positions on evolution arise from individuals’ tendency to form beliefs that signal their membership in and loyalty to identity-defining cultural groups. To assess the relative plausibility of these theories, the paper analyzes data on the relationship between study subjects’ beliefs in evolution, their religiosity, and their scores on the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), a measure of critical-reasoning proficiencies including the disposition to interrogate intuitions in light of available evidence.  Far from uniformly inclining individuals to believe in evolution, higher CRT scores magnified the division between relatively religious and relatively nonreligious study subjects.  This result was inconsistent with the bounded rationality theory, which predicts that belief in evolution should increase in tandem with CRT scores for all individuals, regardless of cultural identity.  It was more consistent with the expressive rationality theory, under which individuals of opposing cultural identities can be expected to use all the cognitive resources at their disposal to form identity-congruent beliefs. The paper discusses the implications for both the study of public controversy over evolution and the study of rationality and conflicts over scientific knowledge generally.

Protecting the Science Communication Environment: The Case of Childhood Vaccines

This paper examines childhood vaccines. It is animated by two reciprocal goals. One is to illustrate how the quality of the science communicating environment—the sum total of practices and cues that orient individuals in relation to what is known by science—affects the public’s recognition of one vital form of decision-relevant science. The other is to underscore the critical need for self-conscious management of the quality of the science communication environment to protect public health.  The paper starts with the case of the wide-spread rejection of the requirement of universal immunization of adolescents against the human papilloma virus in the U.S.: that outcome, the paper argues, was attributable in full to reckless private and governmental decisionmaking that aggravated influences known to detract from the capacity of diverse citizens to recognize valid decision-relevant science. Next the paper examines the situation for other childhood vaccines: the same laissez faire stance has in that context left the science communication environment unprotected from a host of influences that threaten to corrode confidence in his critical public-health policy. The paper concludes, more optimistically, with a set of recommendations that parallel and amplify ones made by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Vaccine Advisory Council (2015) to systematize evidence-based science communication relating to childhood vaccination. The NVAC Report, the paper suggests, furnishes a blueprint for a much larger scale project to fashion a set of institutions and cultural practices suited for protecting the science communication environment.

A Note on the Perverse Effects of Actively Open-minded Thinking on Climate-change Polarization

This research note, published in Research & Politics, presents evidence that political polarization over the reality of human-caused climate change increases in tandem with individuals’ scores on a standard measure of Actively Open-minded Thinking. This finding is at odds with the position that attributes political conflict over facts to a personality trait of closed-mindedness associated with political conservatism.

Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing

This paper, forthcoming in Advances in Political Psychology, describes evidence suggesting that science curiosity counteracts politically biased information processing. This finding is in tension with two bodies of research. The first casts doubt on the existence of “curiosity” as a measurable disposition. The other suggests that individual differences in cognition related to science comprehension—of which science curiosity, if it exists, would presumably be one—do not mitigate politically biased information processing but instead aggravate it.  The paper describes the scale-development strategy employed to overcome the problems associated with measuring science curiosity. It also reports data, observational and experimental, showing that science curiosity promotes open-minded engagement with information that is contrary to individuals’ political predispositions. We conclude by identifying a series of concrete research questions posed by these results.

Culturally Antagonistic Memes and the Zika Virus: An Experimental Test

This paper, published in the Journal of Risk Research, examines a remedy for a defect in existing accounts of public risk perceptions. The accounts in question feature two dynamics: the affect heuristic, which emphasizes the impact of visceral feelings on information processing; and the cultural cognition thesis, which describes the tendency of individuals to form beliefs that reflect and reinforce their group commitments. The defect is the failure of these two dynamics, when combined, to explain the peculiar selectivity of public risk controversies: despite their intensity and disruptiveness, such controversies occur less frequently than the affect heuristic and the cultural cognition thesis seem to predict. To account for this aspect of public risk perceptions, the paper describes a model that adds the phenomenon of culturally antagonistic memes—argumentative tropes that fuse positions on risk with contested visions of the best life. Arising adventitiously, antagonistic memes transform affect and cultural cognition from consensus-generating, truth-convergent influences on information processing into conflictual, identity-protective ones. The paper supports this model with experimental results involving perceptions of the risk of the Zika virus: a general sample of U.S. subjects, whose members were not polarized when exposed to neutral information, formed culturally polarized affective reactions when exposed to information that was pervaded with antagonistic memes linking Zika to global warming; when exposed to comparable information linking Zika to unlawful immigration, the opposed affective stances of the subjects flipped in direction. Normative and prescriptive implications of these results are discussed.

On the Sources of Ordinary Science Knowledge and Ignorance

It is impossible to make sense of persistent controversy over certain forms of decision-relevant science without understanding what happens in the vastly greater number of cases in which members of the public converge on the best available evidence without misadventure.  In order to live well—or just to live, period—individuals must make use of much more scientific information than any (including a scientist) is in a position to comprehend or verify for him- or herself. They achieve this feat not by acquiring even a rudimentary level of expertise in any of the myriad forms of science essential to their well-being but rather by becoming experts at recognizing what science knows—at identifying who knows what about what, at distinguishing the currency of genuine scientific understanding from the multiplicity of counterfeit alternatives.  Their rational recognition of valid science, moreover, is guided by recourse to cues that pervade their everyday interactions with other non-experts, whose own behavior convincingly vouches for the  reliability of whatever scientific knowledge their own actions depend on. Cases of persistent controversy over decision-relevance science don’t stem from defects in public science comprehension; they are not a result of the failure of scientists to clearly communicate their own technical knowledge; nor are they convincingly attributable to orchestrated deception, as treacherous as such behavior genuinely is. Rather such disputes are a consequence of one or another form of disruption to the system of conventions that normally enable individuals to recognize valid science despite their inability to understand it. To preempt such disruptions and to repair them when they occur, science must form a complete understanding of the ordinary processes of science recognition, and democratic societies must organize themselves to use what science knows about how ordinary members of the public come to recognize what is known to science.

The “Gateway Belief” illusion: reanalyzing the results of a scientific-consensus messaging study

This paper (in press at the Journal of Science Communication) analyzes the data collected in the study featured in van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Feinberg, and Maibach (2015). VLFM report finding that a consensus message “increased” experiment subjects’ “key beliefs about climate change” and “in turn” their “support for public action” to mitigate it. However, VLFM fail to report study data essential to evaluating this claim. Subjects told that “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening” did indeed increase their own estimates of “the percentage of scientists [who] have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.” But the degree to which they thereafter “increased” their expressed levels of belief in global warming and support for mitigation did not vary significantly (in statistical or practical terms) from the degree to which control-group subjects, who read only “distractor” news stories, increased theirs. The median and modal changes in the 101-point scales used to measure these “increases” was in fact zero for both groups. In addition to reporting the responses of the control-group subjects, the paper corrects VLFM’s misspecified structural equation model and identifies other discrepancies between the data and VLFM’s characterizations of it, including ones relating to the impact of the experimental treatment on subjects of opposing political outlooks.

Evidence-based Science Filmmaking Initiative, Report No. 1

This Report summarizes the preliminary conclusions of Study No. 1 in the Cultural Cognition Project’s “Evidence-based Science Filmmaking Initiative.” Conducted in collaboration with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the goal of the initiative is to promote the integration of the emerging science of science communication into the craft of science filmmaking. A principal aim of the first study was to develop a valid and reliable science curiosity scale.  The report describes the development of the scale, its psychometric properties, and its success in predicting engagement with a science documentary on evolution produced by Initiative collaborator Tangled Bank Studios.  The report also presents evidence on variation in  science curiosity, and engagement with the documentary conditional on science curiosity, among culturally diverse groups, including ones holding opposing beliefs on human evolution.  Provisional conclusions, and plans for follow up research, are discussed.

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