That conservatives doubt scientific findings and theories that conflict with their political and religious beliefs is evident from even a cursory scan of right-leaning media. The denial of evolution and of global warming and the pushback against stem cell research are the most egregious examples in recent decades. It is not surprising, because we expect those on the right to let their politics trump science—tantamount to a dog-bites-man story.
That liberals are just as guilty of antiscience bias comports more with accounts of humans chomping canines, and yet those on the left are just as skeptical of well-established science when findings clash with their political ideologies, such as with GMOs, nuclear power, genetic engineering and evolutionary psychology—skepticism of the last I call “cognitive creationism” for its endorsement of a blank-slate model of the mind in which natural selection operated on humans only from the neck down.
In reality, antiscience attitudes are formed in very narrow cognitive windows—those in which science appears to oppose certain political or religious views. Most people embrace most of science most of the time.
Who is skeptical of science, then, and when?
That question was the title of an October 2017 talk I attended by Asheley R. Landrum, a psychologist at Texas Tech University, who studies factors influencing the public understanding and perception of science, health and emerging technologies. She began by citing surveys that found more than 90 percent of both Republicans and Democrats agreed that “science and technology give more opportunities” and that “science makes our lives better.” She also reviewed modest evidence in support of the “knowledge deficit hypothesis,” which posits that public skepticism of science is the result of inadequate scientific knowledge. Those who know more about climate science, for example, are slightly more likely to accept that global warming is real and caused by humans than those who know less on the subject.
But that modest effect not only is erased when political ideology is factored in, it has an opposite effect on one end of the political spectrum. For Republicans, the more knowledge they have about climate science the less likely they are to accept the theory of anthropogenic global warming (whereas Democrats' confidence goes up). “People with more knowledge only accept science when it doesn't conflict with their preexisting beliefs and values,” Landrum explained. “Otherwise, they use that knowledge to more strongly justify their own positions.”
Landrum and her colleagues demonstrated the effect experimentally and reported the results in a 2017 paper in the Journal of Risk Research entitled “Culturally Antagonistic Memes and the Zika Virus: An Experimental Test,” in which participants read a news story on Zika public health risks that was linked to either climate change or immigration. Predictably, when Zika was connected to climate change, there was an increase in concern among Democrats and a decrease in concern among Republicans, but when Zika was associated with immigration, the effects were reversed. Skepticism, it would seem, is context-dependent. “We are good at being skeptical when information conflicts with our preexisting beliefs and values,” Landrum noted. “We are bad at being skeptical when information is compatible with our preexisting beliefs and values.”
In another 2017 study published in Advances in Political Psychology, “Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing,” Landrum and her colleagues found that liberal Democrats were far less likely than strong Republicans to voluntarily read a “surprising climate-skeptical story,” whereas a “surprising climate-concerned story” was far more likely to be read by those on the left than on the right. One encouraging mitigating factor was “science curiosity,” or the “motivation to seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure,” which “seems to counteract rather than aggravate the signature characteristics of politically motivated reasoning.”
The authors concluded that “individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open-mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.”
In other words, valuing science for pure pleasure is more of a bulwark against the politicization of science than facts alone.