People Become Increasingly Polarized On Scientific Issues As Their Education Increases

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It flies in the face of what seems logical, but it turns out that the more scientifically educated you are, the more likely your existing political and religious beliefs are reinforced. Many tout education as a way to encourage people to challenge their existing beliefs and prejudices. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that it actually does the opposite. 

People become more and more polarized on certain (often politically-charged) scientific issues as their education level increases. This goes a long way to explain why – despite evidence to the contrary – there are still those in Congress who can deny climate change, and just one-third of Americans "believe" in evolution.

"A lot of science is generally accepted and trusted, but certain topics have become deeply polarizing," said Caitlin Drummond, who led the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a statement. "We wanted to find out what factors are related to this polarization, and it turns out the 'deficit model' – which says the divisions are due to a lack of education or understanding – does not tell the whole story." 

Drummond and colleague Baruch Fischhoff used data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative insight into the way Americans think and feel, to see if there was a link between someone's education level and their opinions on six so-called controversial scientific issues. The issues looked at were human evolution, stem cell research, climate change, genetically modified foods (GMOs), the Big Bang, and nanotechnology.

They discovered that the more scientifically knowledgeable someone is, the more polarized their beliefs and the more likely they are to hold beliefs that match their religious and/or political identities. This was especially the case for evolution, stem cell research, and the Big Bang, whereas political identity (but not religious identity) affected people's views towards climate change. The only two instances where there didn't seem to be much correlation were people's opinions on nanotechnology and GMOs.

"Disagreements about science seem to be about more than the science itself, but also what the science's implications are for a person's identity," Drummond explained, in what may be the best summing up we've come across yet.

But why does this happen? Fischhoff admits that these are "troubling correlations".

Speculating about underlying causes, he suggests "One possibility is that people with more education are more likely to know what they are supposed to say, on these polarized issues, in order to express their identity. Another possibility is that they have more confidence in their ability to argue their case."

The research also found that people with more trust in science are more likely to accept and adapt their existing beliefs in light of scientific discoveries. This supports previous research that found more scientifically curious folk are less polarized on controversial issues than their less curious friends.

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