By Elke Weesjes
Most people believe that while politics are rife with partisanship, science is something less open to interpretation. That’s not necessarily so, though, recent research has found. In fact, when it comes to polarized issues—be they political or scientific—people use a similar process to determine what they believe to be true.
Past studies have shown people don’t digest political information impartially, even though they often think they do. Subconsciously, people—in search of convenient truths—tend to actively discount ideas that challenge their political beliefs while rewarding those that support their preconceptions.
This was graphically demonstrated in 2005 when scientists from the University of California scanned the brains of ten Republicans and ten Democrats using a functional MRI procedure.
The test measured brain activity while participants looked at political advertisements and images of then-presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry. Patterns of activity suggested both groups mentally fought their attraction to images that represented the opposing ideology, essentially convincing themselves that their initial impulses were wrong.
By focusing on flaws associated with the opposition, any instinct toward allegiance was quickly replaced by a sense of dislike. The whole process happens nearly instantaneously, so only the final impression of dislike is noticed.
The end result is that political partisans trick themselves into feeling alienated from each other. And according to study author Joshua Freedman, this psychological behavior is not driven by a deep commitment to issues.
“We are not fighting over the future of the country; we are fighting for our team, like Red Sox and Yankee fans arguing which club has the better catcher,” Freedman explained in a The New York Times article. “Both in an election and in baseball, all that really matters is who wears the team uniform.”
A recent study by Ohio State University researchers showed that this psychological process also occurs when people process scientific information that does not align with their political views. Both liberals and conservatives interviewed for the study expressed less trust in science when they were presented with facts that challenged specific politicized issues.
The authors recruited 1,518 participants from across the country, telling them they would be evaluating a new educational website about science. What the researchers were trying to learn, however, was how participants reacted to science issues that previous studies had determined were partisan—climate change and evolution, in the case of conservatives and hydraulic fracturing and nuclear power for liberals.
Participants were asked to agree or disagree with various claims in order to assess the accuracy of their beliefs. For example, statements such as “greenhouse gas emissions in the United States have decreased substantially in recent years, in part due to the growth of fracking of natural gas” (true) or “there is a great deal of disagreement among scientists about whether or not climate change is primarily caused by human activities” (false). Next the participants were asked to explore the educational website that included all the information needed to inform themselves.
The study found that when participants, liberals and conservatives alike, encountered findings that challenged their views, they were more likely to rate a web page negatively, resist the implications of the information they read, and express distrust of the scientific community in general.
While conservatives are often perceived to be the most dismissive of science, study author Eric Nisbet said both sides are susceptible to bias.
“Liberals are also capable of processing scientific information in a biased manner,”Nisbet, an associate professor of communication and political science at the Ohio State University, said in a news release.
Nisbet is concerned about the public’s diminishing trust in science and blamed the media for politicizing science issues, stoking controversy, and of misrepresenting scientific findings.
What Nisbet seemed to overlook, though was the role scientists themselves play in the politicization of science. As early as 2006, Roger Pielke, of the Center for Science and Technology Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, recognized that scientific debate and political debate had become indistinguishable in the minds of the public and policymakers.
“In many instances, science—particularly environmental science—has become little more than a mechanism of marketing competing political agendas, and scientists have become leading members of the advertising campaigns,” he wrote in Regulation.
When scientists put on the team uniform, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when they are considered as part of the team—and when that happens most people, unable to cheer for the opposition, have to convince themselves that the opposing findings are wrong.
Still, that doesn’t mean scientists should shy away from presenting their findings. A 2015 Pew survey showed American scientists believe that they should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology. Furthermore, they believe that their careers can be advanced by media coverage of their work and social media use. So how can scientists be both impartial communicators and advocates of their work? The answer might be making sure the public knows there are no solid answers.
Pielke—who has had his own travails with communicating science—has famously said that scientists should serve as “honest brokers” of information to restore trust and remove politics from science. They should provide a range of options for policymakers rather than claiming there is just one policy response to a given issue.
“Because scientific results always have some degree of uncertainty and a range of means is typically available to achieve particular objectives, the task of political advocacy necessarily involves considerations that go well beyond science,” Pielke wrote. “Science never compels just one political outcome. The world is not that simple.”