Political leanings may be inseparable from one’s ability to view scientific evidence objectively.

In a study published Sept. 3 in the Social Science Research Network, Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan and his collaborators conducted experiments to test the impact of political passions on people’s ability to view data and facts objectively. The researchers also presented potential subjects with an analytical problem that utilized their abilities to draw conclusions from empirical data. Those who received high scores on this problem were determined to have high numeracy — a higher tendency to analyze quantitative information — and were a focus group of the study.

Titled “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” the study’s subjects, who were drawn from a random sample of individuals with varying political beliefs, were given either a table of numbers on various skin creams that reduce rashes or a table presented in the context of a law banning citizens from carrying concealed handguns. Though the data in both tables was exactly the same, the study found that an individual’s political leanings, whether liberal or conservative, reduced one’s ability to solve math problems in a political context accurately.

Even members of high-numeracy populations exhibited the same effect — individuals who are good at math may flunk a problem they could otherwise solve if the problem disputed their political beliefs, the study showed.

“Cultural and political leanings do make a difference,” Ohio State University psychology professor and study co-author Ellen Peters said. Though numeracy helps researchers understand the data in front of them, all factors work together to help individuals see what they hope to see, she added.

In the words of science writer Chris Mooney, “Science confirms: politics wrecks your ability to do math.”

The results of this research went against Kahan’s predicted original “Science Comprehension Thesis” stating that individuals with high numeracy are not subject to such polarization.

With this research study, Kahan and his coordinators hoped to address the question of why public conflict over societal risks persist in spite of compelling and accessible scientific evidence. The study’s findings highlight unconscious biases based on political beliefs.

“We need to present data differently,” Peters said, adding that there needs to be a way for individuals to view data objectively.

Kahan arrived at Yale in 1999.

  • terryhughes

    If this description of Kahan’s work is accurate, it hardly deserves to be called “research.” Labeling data obviously inserts that data into a corresponding data matrix of understanding already possessed by the subject. In other words: It is NOT correct that “the data in both tables was exactly the same.” For example, if a subject’ sown experience has demonstrated to that subject (let’s say correctly demonstrated for the sake of argument) that gun statistics are normally or always skewed in a certain fashion, then the subject will presumably integrate the additional data of the “gun control” into the subject’s analysis. That’s not a “mistake” by the subject, nor is it a “failure of objectivity.” At most this “research” demonstrates that subjects given a collection of data and told only to use a portion of it (the numbers, not the label) have trouble excluding the excluded bit. But that’s not at all what is claimed here.

    What’s even stranger here is that Kahan seems to have conducted this set of experiments in exactly the OPPOSITE fashion than he should have if he wanted to detect whether political passion affects one’s ability to analyze data. He should first have come up with a way of grading subjects on the basis of how INTENSE their political passions (whatever that means) are, regardless of the orientation of those passions (right, left, whatever). The he should have given the subjects unlabeled data to analyze and determined whether those with more intense passions are less able to correctly analyze the data.

    A separate study might have attempted to distinguish whether the orientation (as opposed to intensity) of passion makes a difference. Kayan should have President Salovey review this “research,” although Kahan is unlikely to be pleased with the feedback.

  • charliewalls

    An inane article. No depth, no examples, no quantities. Remarkably shallow.