Guest post by David Middleton
Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics
Edited by Roger E. Kasperson, Clark University, Worcester, MA, and approved July 19, 2017 (received for review March 23, 2017)
Public opinion toward some science and technology issues is polarized along religious and political lines. We investigate whether people with more education and greater science knowledge tend to express beliefs that are more (or less) polarized. Using data from the nationally representative General Social Survey, we find that more knowledgeable individuals are more likely to express beliefs consistent with their religious or political identities for issues that have become polarized along those lines (e.g., stem cell research, human evolution), but not for issues that are controversial on other grounds (e.g., genetically modified foods). These patterns suggest that scientific knowledge may facilitate defending positions motivated by nonscientific concerns.
Although Americans generally hold science in high regard and respect its findings, for some contested issues, such as the existence of anthropogenic climate change, public opinion is polarized along religious and political lines. We ask whether individuals with more general education and greater science knowledge, measured in terms of science education and science literacy, display more (or less) polarized beliefs on several such issues. We report secondary analyses of a nationally representative dataset (the General Social Survey), examining the predictors of beliefs regarding six potentially controversial issues. We find that beliefs are correlated with both political and religious identity for stem cell research, the Big Bang, and human evolution, and with political identity alone on climate change. Individuals with greater education, science education, and science literacy display more polarized beliefs on these issues. We find little evidence of political or religious polarization regarding nanotechnology and genetically modified foods. On all six topics, people who trust the scientific enterprise more are also more likely to accept its findings. We discuss the causal mechanisms that might underlie the correlation between education and identity-based polarization.
Unfortunately, the paper is behind the PNAS paywall.
This fits in very nicely with Eric Worrall’s “NYT: We Should Trust Climate Scientists Because The Eclipse” post. According to the scientifically illiterate Justin Gillis, we should trust the predictions of climate scientists because real scientists can predict eclipses of the Sun and Moon with amazing precision an accuracy. Well, no. Mr. Gillis’ notion is moronic. Eclipses have no associated political controversies… outside the minds of liberal law professors and Vox.
According to this study, “individuals with greater education, science education, and science literacy display more polarized beliefs on” politically or religiously controversial issues. Views on stem cell research, evolution and the Big Bang diverged along political and religious lines, with scientific literacy increasing the divergence. Views on climate change diverged solely on political lines, diverging more with greater scientific literacy. Views on GMO foods and nanotechnology did not diverge on political or religious lines.
This makes perfect sense. There are no religious or political reasons to oppose GMO foods or nanotechnology.
ARS Technica’s article about this paper displayed the standard liberal smugness, but included some useful information.
KNOWLEDGE SURPLUS —
When it comes to controversial science, a little knowledge is a problem
For those on the wrong side of an ideological divide, scientific knowledge hurts.
JOHN TIMMER – 8/22/2017, 12:50 PM
For a lot of scientific topics, there’s a big gap between what scientists understand and what the public thinks it knows. For a number of these topics—climate change and evolution are prominent examples—this divide develops along cultural lines, typically religious or political identity.
It would be reassuring to think that the gap is simply a matter of a lack of information. Get the people with doubts about science up to speed, and they’d see things the way that scientists do. Reassuring, but wrong. A variety of studies have indicated that the public’s doubts about most scientific topics have nothing to do with how much they understand that topic. And a new study out this week joins a number of earlier ones in indicating that scientific knowledge makes it easier for those who are culturally inclined to reject a scientific consensus.
We’ll do the good news first: there’s no sign of cultural polarization on GMOs or nanotechnology. The former is a bit of a surprise given the widespread public mistrust of this biotechnology (and the frequent claim that the problem arises from a bunch of lefty granola eaters). It would also be easy to envision religious opposition on these topics, given that both involve “playing God” in the sense that humans are creating things that don’t commonly occur naturally.
But that’s about where the good news ends. Drummond and Fishchoff found strong polarization on most of the other topics.
In terms of stem cell research, evolution, and the Big Bang, those with a stronger general education showed greater political polarization, with conservatives more likely to reject them. For those with a strong science education, those topics were also polarized, as was climate change. In a bit of good news, high levels of scientific literacy removed the Big Bang from that list. Put differently, stem cell research and evolution were consistently polarized along political lines. As scientific literacy went up, climate change became politicized, too, but people were more likely to accept the evidence for the Big Bang.
Partly overlapping effects were seen when religious fundamentalism was considered, the exception being climate change, where opinion wasn’t polarized along religious lines. Stem cell research, the Big Bang, and human evolution were, however.
Education vs. science
Overall, Drummond and Fishchoff found that education doesn’t make much of a difference when it comes to accepting science. “Participants’ general educational attainment and science education were at best weakly related to their acceptance of the scientific consensus,” they conclude. Scientific literacy helped a bit overall, as “those with higher scientific literacy scores were more likely to agree with the scientific consensus on three issues: the Big Bang, human evolution, and nanotechnology.”
But that was largely due to the large effect it had among political and religious liberals. In other ways, it hurt, as those with a strong science education or who demonstrated scientific literacy showed higher polarization when it came to stem cells, evolution, and the climate, primarily because conservatives become less likely to accept the scientific consensus.
Ultimately, the thing that matters most is trust. “On all six topics,” the authors write, “people who trust the scientific enterprise more are also more likely to accept its findings.” The politicization of scientific issues may, in part, be the result of a long-term decline in trust in the scientific enterprise among conservatives.
The ARS Technica article includes a graph from the paper:
Firstly, this does not demonstrate “a big gap between what scientists understand and what the public thinks it knows.” The two panels in the graph comprise a non sequitur to that “big gap.” The first panel has nothing to do with the supposed scientific consensus on climate change (Humans are responsible for more than half of the warming since 1950). This is as bad as Doran & Kendall Zimmerman in its flawed logical reasoning. Accepting the assertion that humans are primarily responsible for climate change does not follow from knowing that carbon dioxide is a so-called greenhouse gas.
As a professional geologist, I know the answer to the first question is “carbon dioxide” and the answer to the second question is “mostly because of natural patterns in the Earth’s environment.” There is no logical requirement for the first answer to lead to “mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels.”
Oddly enough, Doran & Kendall Zimmerman found that a majority of academic & government economic geologists agree with me (they only surveyed academic & government scientists.”
It should come as little surprise that geoscientists have consistently been far more likely to think that modern climate changes have been driven by overwhelmingly natural processes. A survey of APEGA, the organization responsible for certifying and licensing professional geoscientists and engineers in Alberta, found that 64% of geoscientists rejected the so-called consensus for various reasons, with climate change being overwhelmingly natural leading the pack.
This study is very interesting because it analyzes the frames of reference (Kuhn’s “different worlds”) in which opinions are formed. Skeptical geologists are most likely to view climate change as overwhelmingly natural. Skeptical engineers are more likely to view it as a matter of economics or fatalism. The cost of decarbonization would far outweigh any benefits and/or would have no measurable effect on climate change.
None of which is ideologically driven, unless there are some unseen forces that drive conservatives into geology and/or engineering… Or something about geology and engineering that drives the practitioners towards conservatism and/or libertarianism. I know that having real jobs, paying beaucoup taxes and having to cut through government red tape, just to do our jobs, certainly could be a motivating factor… The AAPG doesn’t conduct political surveys of its membership, but one company, Seismic Micro-Technology (SMT), did conduct an unscientific survey during the 2008 AAPG convention and found that, “geoscientists are a politically diverse group of people, with no disproportionate representation for any political party.” They also found that 47% of respondents agreed “that human factors are primarily driving global warming.” 36% disagreed and 17% were undecided or unsure. So, the AAPG members who visited SMT’s booth and took the survey probably skewed to the left a bit and SMT’s reporting of the survey seems a bit biased as well:
A minority (37%) of all respondents disagree that human factors are primarily
driving global warming – but political affiliation polarizes opinion
- 57% of conservatives reject the consensus view, versus 27% of liberals.
- Independents align with liberals – with only 30% rejecting the consensus view.
- Political views are more telling here than age, as both Under 45 and Over 45 show pluralities believing in human causes.
A minority, 46%, agreed with the consensus. 54% did not agree with the consensus. 37% disagreed and 17% were unsure.
Putting the AGI, AAPG, APEGA surveys together reveals the following:
|Climate change primarily driven by human activities|
|Doran & Kendall-Zimmerman||AGI||53%||0%||47%|
|Lefsfrud & Meyer||APEGA||40%||33%||27%|
- Reject so-called consensus 43% (±9%)
- Unsure 17% (±17%)
- Endorse so-called consensus 40% (±11%)
All three of these surveys were conducted in or around 2008. Lefsfrud & Meyer was a 2013 reanalysis of a 2008 survey.
While ideology certainly appears to be a factor in scientifically literate disagreement with the so-called consensus, geoscientists clearly fall short of 97% in their endorsement of it.
Yet, Dr. Timmer (a molecular biologist and flaming liberal Democrat) dismisses scientifically literate rejection of the so called consensus with quips like, “a little knowledge is a problem” and “for those on the wrong side of an ideological divide, scientific knowledge hurts.” It appears that he would prefer a scientifically illiterate society in which we would all just bow down to “science” and do what we’re told to do.
If scientifically literate conclusions regarding the causes of climate change are primarily driven by political ideology… The climate science is settled: It’s not science.
 Doran, Peter T.; Maggie Kendall Zimmerman (January 20, 2009). “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” (PDF). EOS. 90 (3): 22–23.
 Drummond, Caitlin and Baruch Fischhoff
Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics. PNAS 2017 ; published ahead of print August 21, 2017, doi:10.1073/pnas.1704882114
 Lefsrud, L. M.; Meyer, R. E. (2012). “Science or Science Fiction? Professionals’ Discursive Construction of Climate Change”. Organization Studies. 33 (11): 1477. doi:10.1177/0170840612463317
 SMT. AAPG Geoscientist Survey Results Political Views of Geologists and Geophysicists. © 2008 Seismic Micro-Technology