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Politics and religion influence opinions more than facts

Church-and-StatePolls relating to publicly controversial scientific issues often trigger a great wailing and gnashing of teeth from science advocates. When large proportions of a population seem poorly informed about evolution, climate change, or genetically modified foods, the usual response is to bemoan the state of science literacy. It can seem obvious that many people don’t understand the science of evolution, for example—or the scientific method, generally—and that opinions would change if only we could educate them.

Research has shown, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Ars has previously covered Yale Professor Dan Kahan’s research into what he calls “cultural cognition,” and the idea goes like this: public opinion on these topics is fundamentally tied to cultural identities rather than assessment of scientific evidence. In other words, rather than evaluate the science, people form opinions based on what they think people with a similar background believe.

That shouldn’t come as a shock, especially given the well-known political or religious divides apparent for climate change and evolution.

A key feature of Kahan’s work, though, comes when he measures general science literacy or propensity for analytical thinking. Rather than ameliorating differences on scientific issues, these properties exacerbate them. Those who should be best equipped to have a handle on the science are the most divided along party lines. It seems that people more familiar with science are better at coming up with explanations to defend whatever conclusions their cultural group has reached.

All this means that when people respond to surveys asking whether they think Earth’s climate has warmed, for example, their answers tell you more about their cultural identity than their factual knowledge. To put that another way, general science knowledge is a very poor predictor of whether people think the Earth has warmed, but political party affiliation is a pretty good one.

Click here to read more from this July 22, 2014 ars technica article by Scott K. Johnson. Click here to read the original journal article by Dan M. Kahan.

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