With some of today’s most contentious political battles raging over topics such as climate change and hydrofracking, new research suggests that science curiosity may be the secret to depolarizing these and other hot-button issues.
The study, which was conducted by members of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and Tangled Bank Studios — a film production company of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute — grew out of work intended to help science filmmakers maximize the appeal of their films, according to Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School and lead author on the study. It found that higher science curiosity, which refers to a disposition towards consuming science media for personal pleasure, corresponds with a greater willingness to engage with information contrary to one’s political beliefs. The results of this research were published in the journal Advances in Political Psychology on Aug. 1.
“At this point, lots of people have studied how identity biases information processing, but they haven’t found much out about individual differences,” Kahan said. “You might say they’ve found some individual differences that relate to the magnification of that effect; this would be the first one to show some kind of buffering of that effect.”
The research team created the Science Curiosity Scale, which, through various studies, was found to reliably measure science curiosity — a variable which had traditionally proven difficult for social scientists to gauge. Participants in the study completed the evaluation and were then measured on the level of severity they assigned to climate change.
Whereas the political polarization between left-leaning and right-leaning individuals on such issues is known to increase with science comprehension and other measures of reasoning proficiency, science curiosity was shown to have a surprisingly counteractive trend in the study.
“For people that were science-curious, based on the measure we developed, even if information was counter to their point of view, if it was framed as being surprising, or being interesting, or something that would elicit their curiosity, they were more likely to open that article,” said coauthor Asheley Landrum, a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
This finding could have far-reaching implications, Landrum said.
“Education is an area where it’s really important to be able to measure this kind of disposition,” Kahan said, “we would also like to see if there are ways in which you could improve group political deliberations by having people who are science-curious be members of those along with people who don’t have that disposition.”
The research has gained the attention of other scholars within the field.
Katie Kenski, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona, called the study a “really nice start,” in facilitating the bridging of the political gap between the right and left.
The conclusion cites the paper’s goal of reporting the pleasure taken by the researchers in conveying their surprising results. It adds that the researchers hope this will motivate other academics to join the effort in answering the questions posed by the study’s findings.
The funding for this research was provided by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.