Finding ways to pique someone's basic curiosity about science-based research may be the secret to depoliticizing hot button topics such as climate change, fracking, or the efficacy of vaccines, according to a new Yale-led study.
The January 2017 report, “Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing,” was published in the journal Advances in Political Psychology. This report on science curiosity is the result of a collaborative research project to increase the general public's engagement and viewership of science-based documentaries.
The research is being led by Dan Kahan, who is a professor of both law and psychology at Yale University as well as a member of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School. Other partners in this research include the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and Tangled Bank Studios at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
In a recent analysis of people's views on climate change, the research team found that "science-curious" individuals are more willing to have an open mind when engaging with empirical evidence that may run counter to stereotypical attitudes within their political party.
In a statement to Yale News, Kahan said, "As their science curiosity goes up, the polarizing effects of higher science comprehension dissipate, and people move the same direction on contentious policies like climate change and fracking.”
Kahan et al. found that both Republicans and Democrats with limited knowledge of science were equally likely to agree or disagree with the statement: "there is solid evidence that global warming is caused by human activity.”
Surprisingly, knowledge about science and curiosity about science are not always congruous. Kahan said, "Whatever measure of critical reasoning we used, we always observed this depressing pattern: The members of the public most able to make sense of scientific evidence are in fact the most polarized."
As an example, the most science-literate conservatives were more likely to disagree with the statement on climate change above than their less-knowledgeable peers. Conversely, the most science-literate liberals almost unanimously agreed with the consensus statement that global warming is caused by human activity.
Obviously, climate change has become a politically divisive topic. But, there is good news! Both Republicans and Democrats who identified as "science-curious" were equally likely to read news stories that ran counter to their political beliefs than their non-curious counterparts; regardless of their level of scientific training or expertise.
These findings are a call to action for anyone with a platform to share science with the public to do their best to keep the public's basic curiosity about science well nourished. Nurturing simple curiosity about science for people from all walks of life could help bridge partisan divides, according to this new research.
The “echo-chamber effect” describes a growing phenomenon of homogenized exposure to both legitimate journalism and fake news. Notably, Kahan and colleagues also found that someone who is curious about science is more likely to venture out of his or her “echo chamber.”
As I'm sure you've realized, each of our individual social media newsfeeds is generally populated with posts that corroborate (as opposed to challenging) your points of view. In many ways, this is inevitable considering that peer groups on Facebook and other social media platforms are self-selected and tend to be comprised of like-mind individuals within the same social network.
Instilling basic curiosity about science may be a way to break down the barriers created by these echo chambers. The researchers found that science-curious individuals tended to seek out science-based material for personal pleasure and entertainment. Oftentimes, this curiosity transported them outside of their echo chamber without even realizing they were doing so.
Science-curious people were also more interested in viewing science films that covered a broad range of topics and didn’t tend to display political polarization when presented with empirically-based scientific evidence.
The study concludes that people who are curious about science are less polarized in their views on contentious issues than their less-curious peers.
Kahan is optimistic about promoting simple curiosity as a way to take the partisanship out of science. He encourages curious individuals from both sides of the political and cultural divide to make strides as ambassadors to the more "doctrinaire" members of their own political party to help depoliticize science.
A recent analysis of various styles of science writing found that weaving a narrative—that includes storytelling and sensory language—into scientific studies about climate change made the material more engaging and influential for the reader.
The December 2016 University of Washington peer-reviewed report, "Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science," was published in the journal PLOS ONE. (I wrote about this research in a Psychology Today blog post, "Storytelling Enhances the Influence of Science-Based Writing")
In my mind, the 2016 UW findings on the benefits of storytelling in science writing dovetail with the latest 2017 Yale-led study on the importance of arousing curiosity about science as a way to break down partisanship.
There is a growing body of research that illuminates the benefits of using narrative writing to bring potentially dry or polarizing empirical evidence to life and make it relatable. Feeling an emotional connection to science-based information tends to increase science curiosity and leads to more passionate proactive behaviors.
For example, in Silent Spring (the title refers to a hypothetical dystopia where all of the songbirds have died), Rachel Carson blended a storytelling narrative and empirical evidence to depoliticize the potential destructiveness of man-made technologies on our environment. The book became a colossal bestseller and changed environmental policies around the globe.
As a great synthesizer of scientific facts woven into a narrative that included tangible everyday examples, Carson was able to make the general reader personally identify with the impact of specific environment threats that encroached into his or her backyard or urban neighborhood. In doing so, she reached a massive audience that transcended politics.
Carson's seminal book was previewed on June 16, 1962, in a New Yorker piece, "Silent Spring—I" which teased the public's curiosity just enough to make the book a runaway hit the minute it arrived in bookstores. Silent Spring sold out immediately and had to enter a second edition printing to quench public demand.
Rachel Carson's calm and even-keeled temperament combined with her love of gathering scientific evidence to support her point of view made Carson the perfect non-political messenger for historically polarizing discussions on environmental protection.
The American Experience documentary, Rachel Carson,(which debuted in January 2017 on PBS) brings to life how piquing the public's curiosity about science with a storytelling narrative can help bridge partisan divides about environmental issues.
If you haven't seen this fascinating and moving documentary yet, below is a YouTube clip of the opening segment of "Rachel Carson" from PBS' American Experience.
Rachel Carson summed up the importance of "opening your eyes" to scientific evidence that may go against your system of belief when she said,
“It was pleasant to believe that much of nature was forever beyond the tampering rage of man . . . But, I have now opened my eyes and my mind. I may not like what I see. But it does no good to ignore it."
Hopefully, the latest efforts by Dan Kahan and his science-curious comrades (myself included) will help break down some of our political divides by advancing partisan-free curiosity and the importance of seeking out scientific research and empirical evidence from beyond our individual echo chambers.
Kahan, D. M., Landrum, A., Carpenter, K., Helft, L. and Hall Jamieson, K. (2017), Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing. Political Psychology, 38: 179–199. doi: 10.1111/pops.12396
Hillier A, Kelly RP, Klinger T (2016) Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science. PLoS ONE 11(12): e0167983. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0167983