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Both liberals and conservatives have anti-science biases, study finds

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New research suggests that liberals, as well as conservatives, can be biased against science that doesn’t align with their political views.

The study found that people from both the left and right expressed less trust in science when they were presented with facts that challenged specific politicized issues.

For conservatives, climate change and evolution were the issues that led them to lose some trust in science. For liberals, it was hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and nuclear power.

The results challenge recent books and articles that claim conservatives alone have difficulty dealing with scientific fact.

“Liberals are also capable of processing scientific information in a biased manner,” said Erik Nisbet, co-author of the study and associate professor of communication and political science at The Ohio State University.

“They aren’t inherently superior to conservatives.”

The researchers caution that the results shouldn’t be interpreted to create a false balance in which each side could be seen as equally wrong on all issues.

“Our point is there is evidence of bias on both sides, although the bias may appear on different issues,” said co-author R. Kelly Garrett, also an associate professor of communication at Ohio State.

For example, “liberals may be biased about some issues, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong about humans causing climate change,” Nisbet said. “You can’t say our study supports the climate denialism movement.”

The study, also co-authored by graduate student Kathryn Cooper, appears in the March 2015 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Participants in the study were 1,518 people from across the country who were told they were evaluating a new educational website about science. But the researchers were actually trying to see how people reacted to science that they knew from previous studies challenged the views of conservatives (climate change, evolution) as well as science that challenged liberals (fracking, nuclear power) along with science that no one seems to have a problem with (geology and astronomy).

All participants were asked a variety of demographic questions, including questions about their political ideology and their knowledge about science.

They were then randomly assigned one of the six science topics. They were asked four true or false questions assessing the accuracy of their beliefs about the topic they were assigned. These questions all concerned well-accepted scientific facts.

For example, the nuclear power participants were asked whether people who live near nuclear power plants are typically exposed to 20 percent more radiation than are people who do not (That is false).

Those who were assigned climate change were asked whether there was a great deal of disagreement among scientists about whether or not climate change is primarily caused by human activities (That is also false).

Participants then viewed the educational website page about their science topic. The page provided information that would have allowed participants to correctly answer all of the previous knowledge questions.

Participants were asked to rate how much they felt several emotions, including anger and annoyance, after viewing the website.

The next questions aimed to find out how motivated the participants were to resist the facts presented on the website. For instance, they were asked whether they felt the website was objective and whether it “tried to pressure me to think a certain way.”

Finally, the participants were asked to rate how much they agreed with five statements that measured their trust in the scientific community. For example, one statement was “I am suspicious of the scientific community.”

The results showed evidence of bias by both conservatives and liberals, although there were differences in how the two sides reacted.

Both liberals and conservatives felt more negative emotions when they read the scientific pages that challenged their views compared to those who read about the scientifically neutral topics (geology and astronomy).

However, the negative reaction of conservatives when they read about climate change and evolution was four times greater than that of liberals who read about nuclear power and fracking.

Both liberals and conservatives showed evidence of motivated resistance against the facts related to the science topics that challenged their political beliefs.

But again, conservatives reacted more strongly than liberals.

The researchers can’t say for sure why conservatives reacted more strongly than liberals when they disagreed with the science, but it may go beyond ideology.

“Climate change and evolution are much bigger issues in the media and political discourse than are fracking and nuclear power,” Nisbet said.

“The fact that the issues that challenge conservatives are currently more polarizing in society today may intensify feelings.”

One of the more distressing findings of the study was that these polarizing issues made both sides lose some trust in science, Garrett said.

“Even liberals showed lower trust in science when they read about climate change and evolution, issues about which they generally agree with the scientific community,” he said.

“Just reading about these polarizing topics is having a negative effect on how people feel about science.”

Unfortunately, the media has the potential to increase politicization around other science issues, such as the current coverage of child vaccination and measles, Nisbet added.

“A great deal of media coverage takes a partisan angle to the story by contrasting statements from potential Republican presidential candidates with President Obama’s call for parents to ensure their children are vaccinated” he said.

This type of media coverage has the potential to politicize what was for the most part previously a non-partisan issue, dampen trust in health experts, and create a divide between liberals and conservatives on the issue, he warns.

Nisbet said the media has seemed to go out of its way to highlight Republican candidates who support parental choice or question the need for required vaccinations.

“What is lost in the coverage are the other Republicans who support vaccine use. Even more importantly, while the media is stoking controversy, they ignore the fact that the science backs up vaccine use and that the overwhelming majority of Americans do have their children vaccinated.”

The most important implication of the study has to do with how we communicate controversial science, Garrett said.

“Demonizing whole groups of people, saying that they are inherently incapable of understanding science, is not only false, it is not an effective communication strategy,” he said.

“Everyone can be biased. Calling people names is not a solution.”

  • Ed

    What ‘science’ was presented to liberals when it came to fracking? Was it that some of their more outlandish claims about fracking are wrong?

  • josh

    I didn’t know there was science promoting frackng. Everything I have ever heard about fracking sounds pretty bad.

    • Wisenheimer

      Where do you read about fracking? A lot of the anti-fracking beliefs are simply not scientifically validated (like fracking itself contaminates ground water or causes gas to shoot out of people’s water faucets).

      That does not mean that fracking is not without its risks. The ponds used to hold the fracking fluid can leak and damage the environment and the groundwater, and fracking is not well regulated yet. But a lot of the fears about fracking simply are not founded in science.

      It is similar to nuclear power. Like every power source, nuclear power has risks and rewards, but most of the opposition to nuclear power is founded upon a failure to understand what the true risks are and how they balance against the rewards.

      • 4redhorses

        Unfortunately there are no ‘science bots’ who are failure-free and not profit-motivated running these plants and sites. The people in charge of these things are just that, people, and too many times in the past we have learned the hard way just how profit motivated and sociopathic they truly are when it comes to the health and well-being of their fellow humans. No amounts of “science” on paper eliminates human greed and apathy when there is a massive amount of money to be made. Please join us here in the real world at your earliest convenience.

        • Wisenheimer

          In the “real world”, we establish regulators to review the science objectively, establish standards based on a cost-benefit analysis, and force industry to comply with the standards through inspection and fines.

          • 4redhorses

            and also in the “real world” a few greenbacks and a few phone calls can trump that faster than anything you’ve ever seen (and I’m guessing reality is not your strong suit based on what you’ve posted so far)

          • Wisenheimer

            If you dislike the political process of regulation, then the logical course of action would be to address that directly. Denying the science because you distrust corporations is illogical. It is a circumstantial ad hominem logical fallacy.

          • 4redhorses

            Ha, please don’t bother me with your high school debate terminology. No one is denying the science, what I am saying, and what liberals know to be true, is that the science is irrelevant when it comes to application because the bottom line is human greed. And like science, much of the ‘political process of regulation’ exists only on paper. I know you are smart enough to know this, you are just weasling around it for your own selfish motivations (as are most people who are pro-fracking and pro-nuclear power). Once again, I’ll state: the science is irrelevant when the application is done and regulated by greedy sociopaths. And your lack of concern about this is very revealing about your own true nature, as well. It actually gives me the creeps just talking to you, because I know exactly what you are.

          • Wisenheimer

            When people make illogical statements, I point out that they are illogical, and thus invalid statements that will be ignored.

            When you use phrases like, “what liberals know to be true . . .” you demonstrate that your opinions are based on your own political beliefs and therefore should not be taken seriously.

            Truth exists without regard to political beliefs. No political philosophy has a monopoly on truth, which is something the study referenced here demonstrated quite clearly.

            The science is the only thing relevant, because it is the only philosophy that has been shown to gain truth over time while self-correcting for mistakes.

            Political philosophy, on the other hand, both the liberal and conservative varieties, have constantly shown themselves to be flawed and only interested in promoting their own agenda, regardless of truth.

            Anti-science hysteria regarding things like vaccines, “western” medicine, nuclear power, fracking, GMO, et cetera on the left prove this. Anti-science hysteria regarding things such as evolution, cosmology, global warming, et cetera, on the right prove this.

            This is why most scientists’ beliefs on these topics are so disconnected from the general public, because scientists’ opinion on science, especially within their own fields, are largely informed by the truth (as best we understand it) rather than political hysteria from the left or the right.

          • 4redhorses

            blah blah blah. It doesn’t matter what scientists believe when it comes to the application of environmentally harmful practices over which they have zero control. Get it? For all your pretense about loving logic you can’t absorb this basic paradox. It doesn’t matter what some arrogant nerd wearing a white coat sitting in a lab thinks about ANYTHING once his or her pet project becomes a reality and is foisted on the unsuspecting public with political conservatives cutting corners on safety in every conceivable way with no regard for anything but their own greed. It doesn’t matter what the scientists thinks in his/her head, talks about with his/her peers, publishes in peer-reviewed (or not) literature, masturbates over in his acceptance speech fantasies etc etc etc. IT DOESN’T MATTER. That is a very insulated little world, and then there is reality where most of the rest of us live, and where things like nuclear and other hazardous waste intersect with those of us that live in actual reality. You can fap to your fantasy of intellectual superiority all the livelong day and it doesn’t make your imaginary world any more relevant to the public than it ever has been.

          • 4redhorses

            I just read this again. You are hysterical. Are you sure this is not a stand-up routine? You should take this act on the road, seriously.

    • DrDaddy

      Agree with the comment below. Take time to read the peer-reviewed research on fracking. You will see that while it has risks, many are manageable with good industry practice. We do need to get off fossil fuels, though.

      • 4redhorses

        “good industry practice” is a joke. Liberals are not untrusting of science, liberals are untrusting of corporatists when it comes to protecting the environment, with very good reason. You can list all the scientific reasons on earth why fracking and nuclear power *can be* safe and not contaminate the environment, but the people who are hired to do the operations and run the plants care only about their paycheck and only regulate themselves to the point it is demanded of them by that old bogeyman, the federal goverment, whom they universally seem to loathe. “Science” is not the over-arching factor when it comes to the safety of these practices, it is the people who actually carry out the procedures, and the bottom line when it comes to maintaining and repairing the equipment and still turning a massive profit, which is the end game.

  • ‘The researchers can’t say for sure why conservatives reacted more strongly than liberals’, but if they look at personality research they’ll find that the trait of open-mindedness underpins liberalism, i.e. people who are predisposed to be open-minded are more likely to be liberal. Open-mindedness is related to being open to and accepting of ideas and viewpoints other than one’s own and a greater likelihood of changing one’s mind. See my blog for more detail.

  • Articles like this artificially try to create a False Balance logical fallacy. While neither side is perfect, the vast majority of science deniers are conservative, and to say otherwise is to be disingenuous. It’s no coincidence that only 9% of US scientists are conservative (and only 6% Republican).

    • Wisenheimer

      Where is the source of your data and what methods are you using?

      The fact that most professional scientists are liberals or moderates is a non sequitur as professional scientists are a statistically insignificant portion of the general population.

      • 4redhorses

        And the people who get to apply the science, in these cases, are money grubbing conservatives like the Kochs, who care zero about their fellow man and only about their bottom line. Scientists do not get the final say when it comes to the destruction of the environment. There is a reason the saying “now we are become death, destroyer of worlds” was uttered after the invention of nuclear arms. The scientists who were so brilliant to figure out how to split the atom had zero power over how this would be applied.

  • emoreno

    which is the name of the study?