Scientific Curiosity Could Bridge Partisan Divide, New Study Says

Researchers found that people with more scientific curiosity were more likely to engage and agree with information that challenged their existing political views. The results differ from previous bodies of research that concluded scientific reasoning magnifies political disagreement.

Researchers defined “scientific curiosity” as the motivation to seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure, especially in film and media.

People who are more scientifically curious are also more willing to consider viewpoints that don’t confirm their worldviews.

Politically motivated reasoning results in people cherry-picking information so that it aligns with their existing political identity and beliefs. This phenomenon partially explains why Republican and Democrats interpreted photos from the recent inauguration differently. In the study, led by Dan Kahan, a professor of law at Yale University, science curiosity appeared to negate the effects of politically motivated reasoning.

Researchers developed a scale to measure science curiosity based on engagement with media: three excerpts from “high quality science documentaries” (such as those from PBS and Smithsonian Channel), and one excerpt from a non-science show (“Hollywood Rundown,” a celebrity-gossip program on YouTube). Engagement was measured by subjects who self-reported interest in each film clip, how long they watched the clip, and whether they looked for more information afterwards.

The researchers also distinguished between scientific curiosity and scientific comprehension. For example, someone with a lot of knowledge of scientific issues may not actively seek out scientific information for fun, whereas someone with little scientific understanding might have a passion for learning more about science they do not yet understand.

Study participants were asked a series of questions related to the environment, including “How much risk do you believe XXX poses to human health, safety or prosperity?” with global warming and fracking as the possible risks. Results showed that those subjects who scored higher on the scientific curiosity scale viewed global warming or fracking as a higher risk, regardless of their political outlook. In another question, subjects were asked to agree or disagree with a statement about human-caused climate change. Again, those with higher science curiosity, both self-identified liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, had a greater acceptance of human-caused climate change.

In another experiment, participants were given a choice to pick a news story that was most interesting to them. Subjects were presented with two article headlines: one that was not skeptical of human caused climate change, and another that was “climate-skeptical.” Those subjects who scored low in science curiosity preferred headlines that were consistent with their existing political views on climate change, regardless of their political persuasion. Overall, however, right-leaning participants were generally less concerned than left-leaning, but their higher science curiosity scores still corresponded to an increased perception of risk.

In contrast, those who were relatively curious preferred the headlines with new information, even if it differed from their views. If a conservative Republican scored above average in scientific curiosity, they had a 62% probability of choosing a headline that was not skeptical of climate change, versus a news story that might confirm their beliefs. Also, liberal Democrats who scored as moderately scientifically curious had a 44% probability of choosing a climate-skeptical story that might surprise their beliefs on climate change, such as “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Ice Increasing in Antarctic, Not Currently Contributing To Sea-Level Rise.”

The results do not indicate if participants revised their views after reading the articles, but the authors encourage the findings to serve as guidelines for improving science communication. Fostering curiosity about both familiar and foreign scientific information can lead us one step closer to creating more balanced understanding across the political spectrum.

In the interests of full disclosure, one of the documentaries Kahan and his colleagues showed participants was NOVA’s “Evolution” series. Despite that, NOVA was not involved in the study.