Is Scientific Curiosity the Cure for Partisanship?

Curiosity is a human trait—we are curious apes, as this blog’s name suggests—but not all possess it to the same degree—and this has consequences.

To be “incurious” may mean one is apathetic, fearful of change, or even oblivious to the gaps in knowledge. There are any number of biases in play that interfere with, and shut down, curiosity.

A new study says that this lack of curiosity also comes with a social cost: polarization.

According to the study (“Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing“), there is a strong connection between those who have a scientific curiosity and being open to new information.

Individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage in political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open mindedly, and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available scientific evidence.

According to the study’s team leader, Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and professor of psychology at Yale Law School, scientifically curious individuals are drawn to new information.

“When they are offered the choice to read news articles that support their views or challenge them on the basis of new evidence, science-curious individuals opt for the challenging information…For them, surprising pieces of evidence are bright shiny objects—they can’t help but grab at them.”

The study looked at the classic partisanship that occurs on the issue of global warming. They found that Republicans and Democrats lower on scales of scientific literacy were “equally likely to agree or disagree” with the statement that there is “‘solid evidence’ of recent global warming due ‘mostly’ to ‘human activity such as burning fossil fuels.’” This generally followed partisan lines.

That divide grew stronger among those with more knowledge. Those on the right and left whose “scientific comprehension” were greater showed far more significant disagreement “than less-knowledgeable peers”—increasing partisanship.

“Whatever measure of critical reasoning we used,” said Kahan, “we always observed this depressing pattern: The members of the public most able to make sense of scientific evidence are in fact the most polarized.”

However, to be scientifically literate is not the same as being curious and curiosity changes these results significantly.

“Higher levels of science curiosity, in contrast, were associated with greater acceptance of human-caused climate change among both right-leaning and left-leaning study subjects,” they write.

This gets at the heart of science. Most of the scientists I know and read relish in information regardless of what it tells them. To be wrong is not a bug, after all, but a feature of science. It is the idea that there is more to learn than a lifetime can seize, and turning a blind eye to new information because it doesn’t confirm our beliefs is just wasting valuable time that could be used for new discoveries.

Photo: Leo Rivas-Micoud (cc0)