In February 2015, Republican senator Jim Inhofe tossed a snowball in Congress to disprove global warming. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax created by the Chinese, although he later backed down on the Chinese part, saying that was a joke. His running mate Mike Pence thinks that “the science is very mixed” on global warming and that “smoking doesn’t kill.” He also wants schools to “teach the controversy” between evolution and creationism.
We often hear Republicans spouting anti-science rhetoric, but we rarely hear it from the Democrats. So, is there something about political conservatism that also makes you resistant to science? Psychologists Stephan Lewandowsky and Klaus Oberauer argue in a recent article that skepticism about scientific claims doesn’t depend on your political affiliation or even your level of science education. Instead, they say, it depends on whether those claims confirm or conflict with your core beliefs.
Lewandowsky and Oberauer point out that before the 1970s, there was no difference in the level of anti-science attitudes between the two parties. Since then, however, a number of scientific issues have arisen that conflict with the vested interests of big business and fundamentalist Christianity, the two pillars supporting the Republican Party. Repeatedly, conservative politicians have had to make claims that contradict established science to appease their constituencies, whereas the liberals have generally not been put in that position.
Some politicians may be ignorant of the science they’re denying. Or else they plead ignorance, as Mike Pence has done, to avoid having to answer difficult questions. However, lack of science literacy can’t account for high degree of science bashing that goes on in the Republican Party. When psychologists asked liberals and conservatives for their opinions on science issues about which they had little information, there was no consistent pattern in the responses. In other words, there’s nothing about political affiliation per se that leads you to take an anti-science stance.
It’s often argued that people need more science education if they’re going to make wise decisions about important problems such as global warming, but researchers found even greater polarization of opinions among highly educated liberals and conservatives. Thus, scientifically literate Democrats strongly agree that climate change is a real and pressing issue, whereas similarly educated Republicans insist that the evidence is unconvincing.
According to Lewandowsky and Oberauer, this polarization occurs because of a process called motivated cognition. In a previous post, I discussed the difference between intuitive and analytical thinking. Fast, intuitive thinking is the default mode for humans, but we can all engage in slow, analytical thinking when we need to. Which mode of reasoning we choose depends on the conclusion we hope to reach. In other words, we opt for the style of thinking that will confirm our cherished beliefs.
In one study, the researchers asked people to evaluate supposed data for a new skin cream, as presented in the table below.
Those with lower numeracy skills concluded that the skin cream was effective because more people who used it saw improvement compared to those who didn’t use it. However, those with higher numeracy skills understand that you need to convert the raw data into percentages, like this:
Since a greater percentage of the non-users saw improvement, the correct conclusion is that the cream was not effective at curing the rash and might have even made it worse. In this case, the people who knew how to solve the problem analytically used that approach.
Next, the researchers used the same raw data but changed the labeled. Now the data purportedly came from a study looking at whether gun control led to an increase or decrease in crime rates. That is, the data appear to suggest that crime increases when guns are banned, but in fact they show the opposite.
Conservatives concluded that banning guns leads to an increase in crime. (That is, they interpreted the data intuitively.) But the liberals came to the opposite conclusion. (That is, they interpreted the data analytically.) This pattern was true even for those with high levels of mathematical skills.
When the researchers switched the data, such that they appeared to show a decrease in crime but actually showed an increase, conservatives used the analytical approach while the liberals used the intuitive approach. In short, regardless of what the data actually said, each side used either intuitive or analytical reasoning to arrive at the conclusion they wanted.
As these results suggest, a general science education doesn’t inoculate people from buying into anti-scientific claims. However, researchers have found that short simple explanations of what causes global warming can change people’s minds. However, government-funded public service announcements about climate change are unlikely until there’s a change in the political climate.
Lewandowsky and Oberauer also wag a finger at the media. In an effort to be fair and balanced, journalists will present both sides of an issue. Most political decisions depend more on the preferences of the populace than any set of scientific facts, and so hearing multiple perspectives is valuable. But when a “climate changer” and a “nay-sayer” go head to head on national TV, the impression is that scientists haven’t yet reached a consensus on this issue. In fact, scientists overwhelming agree on the causes and consequences of climate change.
On the whole, conservatives are not more anti-science than liberals. Republicans are quite willing to fund scientific research that will benefit their constituencies, as for example when it comes to defense spending. But we’re all motivated to adjust our thinking to match our core beliefs. And when you’re a politician, that motivation comes in the form of votes and the big bucks needed to get those votes.
Boyle, R. (2016, July 15). Trump VP choice Mike Pence doesn’t agree with science. Popular Science. Retrieved from: http://www.popsci.com/top-5-worst-mike-pence-quotes-on-science
Bump, P. (2015, Feb. 26). Jim Inhofe’s snowball has disproven climate change once and for all. The Washington Post. Retrived from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/02/26/jim-inhofes-sn...
Jacobson, L. (2016, June 3). Yes, Donald Trump did call climate change a Chinese hoax. Politifact. Retrieved from: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/jun/03/hillary-c...
Lewandowsky, S. & Oberauer, K. (2016). Motivated rejection of science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 217-222.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).