Study finds liberals are more accepting of scientific facts — and nonfactual statements

New research provides evidence that political orientation is a predictor of belief in scientific and unscientific statements. The study, published in Psychological Reports, found that more liberal college students tend to be more accepting of both types of statements compared to their conservative counterparts.

“My interest in this topic probably began back when the anti-vaxxer movement became an increasingly serious issue and only increased with the increased spread of ‘fake news’ during the 2016 election,” said study author Mary M. Medlin, a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi and lab manager of the Evolutionary Social Psychology Lab.

“My primary interest has been to identify factors influencing acceptance/denial of scientific research and use that information to increase acceptance of valid research and denial of invalid, non-empirically supported information.”

In the study, 270 college students were asked to rate their agreement with a series of scientific facts and nonfactual statements. Scientific facts included statements such as “A typical cumulus cloud weighs about 1.1 million pounds,” while nonfactual statements included common false beliefs such as “Humans only use about 10% of their brain.”

The researchers found that participants who were more politically liberal tended to agree more with the scientific statements, compared to participants who were more conservative. However, liberalism was also associated with a greater belief in nonfactual statements.

“It is possible that whereas more conservative persons may be unduly skeptical, more liberal persons may be too open and therefore vulnerable to inaccurate information presented in a manner that appears scientific,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The study also found that liberal participants reported greater agreement with pro-truth statements, such as “It is important to me to align my opinions and my actions with true information,” which in turn was associated with their increased agreement with scientific facts.

“The main take-away message of this study is that there are multiple factors influencing attitudes towards science, beyond a vague category of ‘intelligence,’ so people need to be cautious when drawing conclusions about shared information, especially if they have not researched that information to confirm its validity,” Medlin told PsyPost.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“One significant caveat is the limited sample in this study. We only examined undergraduate students from one university, so the findings are not as generalizable. Therefore, one major question remaining is the question of whether or not these findings generalize to the public at large,” Medlin explained.

“Additionally, there are still more factors that could influence attitudes towards scientific information that we have not yet examined. There are many more directions that this research could go in. For instance, I am currently designing a study manipulating how scientific information is communicated.”

“The hope is that presenting the information a certain way will help individuals across ideologies accept accurate scientific information more readily,” Medlin said.

The study, “Political Orientation and Belief in Science in a U.S. College Sample“, was authored by Mary M. Medlin, Donald F. Sacco, and Mitch Brown.