Earth & Conservation

People Who Are Curious About Science Are More Open-Minded About Politics

Recruiting these people for larger group discussions about controversial science topics could advance ideas community-wide.

It's probably safe to say that since Election Day, most people have tuned the polarizing filters of their social media bubbles to high. From inside their echo chambers, people are shutting out others who offer information that runs counter to their own opinions, especially about politically charged issues.

But not everyone. A new study shows that people who are curious about science venture outside their echo chambers and engage with information that runs counter to their politics.

Recruiting these people for larger group discussions about controversial science topics could advance ideas community-wide.

Dan Kahan, a professor of law at Yale University, and his team, hailing from Tangled Bank Studios, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institution, didn't start out with the ambition of uncovering this finding. Originally, they had been working to develop a tool that that could measure a person's curiosity level for science-related movies and other media.

"We didn't start out with the ambition to try find some kind of a reasoning proficiency that would counteract the politically motivated reasoning," Kahan told Seeker.

But when they saw that a strong curiosity seemed to be off-setting politically motivated reasoning, they decided they needed to dig in a little deeper.

They conducted from two studies: one that was observational and one that was experimental.

For the observational component, the researchers asked 2,500 people to answer a variety of questions as part of a marketing survey. Questions about science were embedded in sections related to one's personal interest, including sports, finance, politics, popular entertainment, and other issues. In this way, the respondents didn't know that the researchers were trying to determine an interest in science.

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The team found that people who had a high interest in science regard societal risks such as climate change, fracking or nuclear waste disposal - often political hot buttons - in a similar way.

For the experimental part of the study, the researchers split 3,000 people in two groups. Both groups were asked to choice between two different news stories about climate change. One headline evinced a "climate-realist" orientation, while the other skewed toward a "climate-skeptical" stance. Headlines were also written a way that could either surprise a person with a pre-existing belief or corroborate that belief.

It turns out that people who were science-curious, preferred to engage with novel, surprising information, even if it ran counter to their political predispositions.

This means that people who are curious about science, seem to be more openminded about ideas that challenge their assumptions.

Kahan suggested that the science curiosity tool could be used by science communicators who want recruit people to discuss controversial issues. Since people who are curious about science represent a diverse group of people, they could help move discussions forward about politically charged issues.

"They're ideally situated to convey that information because they're normal people who other people in those kinds of communities are going to recognize as having the same interests and values, so why not listen to them?" Kahan said.

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