The Sciences

The Psychology of Science Politicization

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneySep 24, 2010 2:05 PM


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I've been meaning to blog about this recent study, which examines why it is that people think they have science on their side (much as they often think they have God on their side). It's fascinating: according to new work by Dan Kahan of Yale, Hank Jenkins-Smith of the University of Oklahoma, and Donald Braman of George Washington, people think that scientific consensus aligns with their values. In other words, they think scientists are credible experts if they believe what they believe--even when they believe completely absurd things (i.e., that global warming isn't happening). From a summary of the work:

Subjects were much more likely to see a scientist with elite credentials as an "expert" when he or she took a position that matched the subjects' own cultural values on risks of nuclear waste disposal and laws permitting citizens to carry concealed guns in public.

"These are all matters," Kahan said, "on which the National Academy of Sciences has issued 'expert consensus' reports." Using the reports as a benchmark," Kahan explained that "no cultural group in our study was more likely than any other to be 'getting it right'," i.e. correctly identifying scientific consensus on these issues. They were all just as likely to report that 'most' scientists favor the position rejected by the National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report if the report reached a conclusion contrary to their own cultural predispositions."

No wonder climate deniers and anti-evolutionists put out those long, misleading lists of all the scientists who allegedly support their views. This study also underscores a critically important role for the science journalist (a career that's now dying, as we just wrote in the latest

Best American Science Writing 2010

). Science journalists are ideally equipped to explain to the public where scientific consensus actually lies, as opposed to where it is falsely claimed to lie. We survey the work of the National Academies and other outlets. We interview the experts. We often read the studies ourselves. And thus we serve as a needed antidote to this confirmation bias with regard to where expertise lies. And there are fewer and fewer of us.

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