The more you know about science, the more likely you are to have accurate scientific views

Duh. But unfortunately, sometimes people deny the obvious. Russell Blackford links to this piece adapted from Chris Mooney’s new book, saying, “this article is rather interesting. I wonder whether it signals a return to form.” Mmm… interesting, yes, but the piece still includes the kind of bad arguments Mooney has become infamous for. The core of the article is this:

Despite a growing scientific consensus about global warming, as of 2008 Democrats and Republicans had cleaved over the facts stated above, like a divorcing couple. One side bought into them, one side didn’t—and if anything, knowledge and intelligence seemed to be worsening matters.

Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.

Therefore, Mooney argues, it’s “naïve” to think that “that laying out the ‘facts’ would suffice to change politicized minds.” Except the Pew report doesn’t say anything about that question. You can get a college degree without ever having been exposed to the facts about global warming. Indeed, there’s no shortage of humanities majors out there who do the absolute minimum required work to meet their distribution requirements for science, not only taking the fewest possible classes but also taking the easiest and most watered-down classes.

But the fact that the divide over global warming is deeper among the college educated is interesting, how to explain it? The explanation I’ve heard before is that the college educated are more likely to be politically aware, and more likely to have been told that global warming is something “liberals” believe in, and so feel compelled to disbelieve if they are conservative. And Mooney actually gives more or less that explanation:

For one thing, well-informed or well-educated conservatives probably consume more conservative news and opinion, such as by watching Fox News. Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues—what people like them think—and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain “facts” or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to argue.

What this suggests, critically, is that sophisticated conservatives may be very different from unsophisticated or less-informed ones. Paradoxically, we would expect less informed conservatives to be easier to persuade, and more responsive to new and challenging information.

In fact, there is even research suggesting that the most rigid and inflexible breed of conservatives—so-called authoritarians—do not really become their ideological selves until they actually learn something about politics first. A kind of “authoritarian activation” needs to occur, and it happens through the development of political “expertise.” Consuming a lot of political information seems to help authoritarians feel who they are—whereupon they become more accepting of inequality, more dogmatically traditionalist, and more resistant to change.

If the big lesson here is just that watching Fox News makes you less likely to accept global warming, color me unsurprised.

Mooney also says that with respect to global warming, “Republicans or conservatives who say they know more about the topic… are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves as well—and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue.” But there’s a difference between thinking you know more about a topic and actually knowing more. This is actually demonstrated by another study Mooney cites, about the healthcare debate, which found that “Republicans who thought they knew more about the Obama healthcare plan” were actually more likely to believe misinformation about it.

To return to my no-duh headline: the extreme case is, of course, that scientists who specialize in a particular subject are more likely than just about anyone else to have correct views on that subject. If knowing lots and lots about a subject weren’t helpful, there would never be such a thing as expert consensus, just bunches of ideological camps (the way you see in, you know, philosophy).

Now, the point about experts doesn’t point to any magical solution for how to educate the general public, but I think it’s more relevant than knowing about the effects of an English degree on a person’s scientific opinions. And in the less extreme case, I’ve found that the better-informed anti-evolutionists (say, Alvin Plantinga) tend not to be Young-Earth Creationists, but instead have some kind of watered-down anti-evolution position (i.e. “Intelligent Design.”) Not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.

There’s a good chance I’ll write more on this in the future. I actually did a term paper during my last semester of grad school on Dan Kahan, one of the main guys Mooney cites (it was a philosophy of science class). Kahan makes a lot of the same basic mistakes Mooney does, citing experiments and studies in support of conclusions they’re not really relevant to. I think I’ll try tweaking the paper for clarity and then posting it.

  • http://florilegia.wordpress.com Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    I get the impression that you’re underestimating the value of having an education in the humanities (which is a little strange considering that you yourself have such a degree). I’ll grant you that a degree in Fine Arts or Music probably won’t do much to help one think critically or evaluate sources, but a degree in English, History, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, or even Art History would.

    In most areas of general knowledge, those people who have an education tend to know more than their uneducated counterparts, even when the specific subject matter is outside their specialty. But once some set of facts becomes politicised, that no longer necessarily holds true. Conspiracy theories and confirmation bias come into play. Demands of loyalty to ideology and tribal affiliation trump getting to know the truth. Especially for those on the conservative, authoritarian, or libertarian right.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      You really must not be familiar with my dim view of academic philosophy. Seriously, I’ve maybe taken one philosophy class ever that aided my understanding of science. My knowledge of science comes from other places. And anthro, sociology, and psychology are social sciences.

      I may have been a bit unfair to the humanities, though, insofar as you can even get some of the same problems when specialists in one branch of the natural sciences try to opine on other branches. They can be just as ignorant as someone who’s totally uneducated.

      • tonyf

        “They can be just as ignorant as someone who’s totally uneducated.”
        Of course they can. But the more interesting question is, what are the statistical distributions? Is Ibis3 right or wrong in “In most areas of general knowledge, those people who have an education _tend to_ know more than their uneducated counterparts, even when the specific subject matter is outside their specialty.”(my added emphasis)?

    • Pro Libertate

      “Especially for those on the conservative, authoritarian, or libertarian right.”

      Wow, this is just pathetic…

      For starters, you would be totally unable to define what you mean by “the right”. And however you define it, Libertarians are NOT part of it, assuming that’s where you put Republicans and .. Authoritarians?

      You mean like National SOCIALIST Hitler, COMMUNIST Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Chavez and the Socialist International members Ben Ali, Mubarak and Ghadaffi?

      What is it again that they have in common? Ah, right, they are on the LEFT, which is easily definable: There is a very large set of beliefs that all leftists share and that make them totally predictable. Among them the belief that giving some people a badge that says “government” and a monopoly over violence will solve anything. Most of those beliefs just as wrong.

      Obviously, you’d be completely unable to predict how I, as Libertarian, think on any given issue.

  • iknklast

    Perhaps one problem is that Republicans (conservatives in general) tend to be overrepresented in Economics and Business, and those classes often present scientific information in a way that appears to support their economic views (I once argued with my Econ instructor about an acid rain study, but quit when I realized he didn’t understand the basic science). In my science program, the conservatives I encountered were often in engineering, which may not give them the background they need to grasp the science behind global warming.

    People self-select their majors/courses many times based on what they already believe, and there is also a huge selection process going on based on each particular professor. Students share this knowledge, and a student can avoid any professor who is going to teach something they don’t believe.

    • http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.com/ andyman409

      Agreed. However. I dont think students intentionally select classes so that they wont have to learn something they dont like. Most of the time they will literally plug their ears and ignore it. I know a girl who is talented in math, yet a young earth creationist and a conspiracy theoriest. She just goes to her science classes and simply ignores anything that goes against her beliefs. Its very creepy

  • Matt

    For one thing, most influential Republicans and Democrats are not trained in any kind of science, it seems, so it is not suprising they don’t know much about it in the first place.


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