The Brain

Political, Religious Identity More Influential Than Scientific Literacy

July 8, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via flickr

IFLScience has reported the results of some pretty horrifying polls about the scientific literacy of people today, including that just 33% of Americans believe in evolution by natural selection, half believe medical conspiracy theories, and 25% didn’t know Earth orbited the Sun. Is the cause, as one poll suggested, that Americans just don’t know the science and therefore lack confidence? Maybe not. 

There is a connection between political affiliation and religious beliefs to how an individual responds to science surveys. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School found that even people who have been educated on the science will often choose personal beliefs over scientific truths. His paper has been accepted for publication in the journal Advances in Political Psychology, though it has been made available in an open access format.

A survey was given to 1800 participants covering a wide variety of scientific topics, from the relative size of electrons to the risk posed by climate change. There was virtually no difference between political and religious ideologies in regards to what the science says. However, personal opinion appeared to dominate when asked to personally endorse a stance.

Belief appears trumps fact and reason, which is why dealing with anti-vaxxers, creationists, or climate change deniers can be such a rage-inducing experience. This news is also a bit disheartening, as changing minds is not as easy as explaining the facts. What can we do to combat the fact that scientifically-literate individuals are turning their backs on facts in order to toe the line for political party or religious sect?

Kahan advocates breaking down the association that liberals think one way about a scientific issue while conservatives believe the opposite; likewise for atheists and those who are very religious. When a particular stance is tied to something that is a large influence on an individual’s sense of self, all it does is create automatic barriers. Removing those personal associations from scientific truths could allow for more reasonable discourse about important issues like the effects of climate change and could expedite good policy when it isn’t seen as one side “winning” or “losing.”

[Hat tip: Brendan Nyhan, New York Times]

[Header image: “Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey - Icons” by DonkeyHotey via flickr, used in accordance with CC BY 2.0]

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