SCIENCE

Liberals And Conservatives Are Both Biased Against Science, But In Different Ways

02/12/2015 08:33 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2015
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We usually think of political conservatives as the anti-science contingent, owing to their factions who deny, among other scientifically-verifiable facts, climate change and evolution. That may not be quite fair, as recent anti-vaccination arguments have often come from those who identify with the left. And new research suggests that, in fact, when it comes to scientific bias, we're all equally foolish. In other words? Anti-science thinking is a bipartisan issue.

According to new research from political scientists at Ohio State University, both the right and the left exhibit biases against scientific facts that don't support their own political views. The researchers found that individuals on both the left and the right express distrust in science when it comes to certain politically-charged issues.

"One of the goals of this [research] was to dismiss the claims by various pundits and authors that somehow 'Republican brains' are hardwired more so than liberals to be biased toward scientific information and distrust scientists," study co-author Erik Nisbet, an associate professor of communication and political science at Ohio State University, told The Huffington Post.

"There are definitely established psychological differences between conservatives and liberals, but nothing in the scientific literature has shown that one group is more likely to be more or less biased toward scientific information than the other."

The researchers designed an experiment in which they asked over 1,500 people recruited from around the country and asked them to "evaluate a new educational website about science." But really, the researchers wanted to see how the participants reacted to science that challenged traditional conservative and traditional liberal views (climate change and evolution, and fracking and nuclear power, respectively), as well as completely uncontroversial science (i.e. geology and astronomy).

The participants also answered questions about their knowledge of science. Then, they were randomly assigned to one of six science topics, and asked to answer several true or false questions about well-accepted scientific facts within that topic, to assess their beliefs. For instance, some participants were asked whether living near a nuclear power plant meant being exposed to 20 percent more radiation -- a known falsity -- while the climate change group members were asked if there is professional consensus that climate change is caused by human activities (there is).

The participants then viewed the educational website about their topic, which provided answers to true or false questions they had just answered. They were asked to rate how much they felt various emotions, such as anger, and were also asked questions designed to show how much they resisted the facts (i.e. whether the site "pressured me to think in a certain way"). Last, they were asked to answer questions that measured their trust in the scientific community.

Both liberals and conservatives showed a bias against science, although they displayed different reactions. The conservatives' negative reactions to the scientific pages that challenged their views were four times greater than those of the liberals. Both groups showed resistance to the facts that challenged their beliefs, and (rather dishearteningly), the politicized issues made both sides lose trust in science.

"For conservatives and liberals alike, negative emotions and motivated resistance led participates to lower their trust in the scientific community compared to when they were presented with ideologically-neutral information about topics like geology or space," Nisbet explained in an email to The Huffington Post.

Conservatives' more intense negative reactions may be partly due to the more politicized nature of the issues they were reacting to.

"Although conservatives and liberals in this study did not respond in exactly the same way, they were also responding to different issues," study co-author Dr. Kelly Garrett told The Huffington Post. "That is, conservatives were resisting messages about climate change and evolution, while liberals resisted messages about fracking and nuclear energy. We cannot tell whether the strength of the responses are due to ideology or to the issues being considered, but there is evidence that climate change is uniquely political charged."

In order to promote greater scientific literacy, the important thing is to recognize and identify these biases in ourselves, rather than demonizing others for having anti-scientific beliefs.

"We all have biases that shaped our perceptions, and that influence our acceptance or rejection of scientific information," Nisbet concluded. "We should not demonize others who may differ in their values or beliefs. There is little to be gained
from labeling a party 'anti-science.'"

The findings will be published in March in the journal The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

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