Inoculating against bias

Awhile back Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School came and spoke at CIRES here at CU about how opinions on a politicized topic like global warming tracks more with political identity and actually can harden with greater scientific literacy. It is a depressing feeling as most of us feel that the cure for people not agreeing with the science is to get them to understand the science; instead it seems that the ones best equipped to reconsider their opinion use those tools to justify their opinion rather than reconsider it.

So it is with something of a sigh of relief that some recent work by Kahan and colleagues points toward a crack in the facade of denying the science (thank you, BBC for noting this). Adding to their previous measure of scientific literacy, they created a measure of scientific curiosity. This in and of itself is rather innovative, but then they find that members of both liberal and conservative tribes are more open to considering evidence against their tribe’s opinion if they score higher on the curiosity scale.

Unfortunately this is a somewhat secondary effect.  While scientifically curious conservatives are nearly twice as likely to think global warming is mostly due to human carbon emissions, this is still only getting from 20% to 40% while political affiliation is a far stronger predictor of an opinion. Still, this points to the people on the opposite side of the political fence you have the best chance of convincing. In a sense, you are looking for people who like to have their world view challenged.

Of course Kahan et al. note that this is a pretty early part of this kind of research and so the results might change, but it is certainly intriguing. It suggests that if we worry more about encouraging students to look for stuff they don’t believe in, we might get a public more capable of absorbing new results from the scientific community.

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