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There may be an antidote to politically motivated reasoning. And it’s wonderfully simple.

Yes, politics can make us stupid. But there’s an important exception to that rule.

Get these kids in Congress.
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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Dan Kahan is a professor of law and psychology at Yale whose research over the years has taught us something critically important about political debate today.

It’s this: While we would like to believe we can persuade people on the other side of a political debate with evidence, his studies show the other side is likely to become even more deeply entrenched in its view in the face of more information. His findings are a blow to the great underlying assumption of democracy: that an informed public is the key for a government that works.

The phenomenon is called “politically motivated reasoning,” and it finds people use their minds to protect the groups to which they belong from grappling with uncomfortable truths. The motivation to conform is stronger than the motivation to be right.

That’s why his latest research finding “is totally unexpected,” he says. There’s an antidote to politically motivated reasoning, it turns out. And it’s wonderfully simple: curiosity.

Politics (usually) makes us stupid

Kahan and his collaborators’ experiments on politically motivated reasoning usually go like this.

They’ll give participants a math problem to solve. For instance, they’ll be told there was a recent drug trial, and they’ll be given the numbers of people who were cured and not cured in both the treatment and placebo conditions. The participants will have to do some arithmetic to find out if the drug worked. In these conditions, people who are better at math tend to get the answer right more often than people who are bad at math. No surprises there.

Kahan will then run another version of the same study, but instead of evaluating a drug trial, participants will be given figures about the effectiveness of gun control measures. Here, the trend flips.

“Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology,” Ezra Klein explained in a profile of Kahan’s work. “Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.”

Ugh. Why? “People are using their reason to be socially competent actors,” Kahan says. Put another way: We have a lot of pressure to live up to our groups’ expectations. And the smarter we are, the more we put our brain power to use for that end.

Why study “scientific curiosity”

In his latest work, recently published in Advances in Political Psychology, Kahan and his collaborators — including researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center — weren’t setting out to cure partisan bias, at least not initially. At first, they were developing a tool to measure an individual’s levels of science curiosity (for a separate project on how to make more engaging science documentaries). The existing tools to gauge scientific interest were lacking. And Kahan wanted to make a better one.

His curiosity measure was clandestinely inserted into what looked like a marketing survey (so people weren’t aware they were taking a science curiosity test), and sent out to thousands of people.

Along with asking questions about interests like “how often you read science books,” it included a behavioral measure of interest in science. The survey gave the option of choosing from a few articles to read, and the researchers noted which subjects people went for.

(The researchers were confident the tool actually measures science curiosity because individuals’ scores on it nicely correlated with science-seeking behavior. Namely, scores predicted how long participants would spend watching a short science documentary — which they could turn off at any time — and how interesting they found the content.)

They find that “science curiosity” is a trait that follows a bell curve in the population. And highly science-curious people are about evenly distributed across demographic groups and political leanings. So yes, there are “scientifically curious” conservative Republicans out there.

Dan Kahan

The more scientifically curious people are, the more they are immune to the power of partisan thinking

Because he was curious, Kahan also included some of the politically charged questions that tend to polarize even the smartest of partisans in the faux marketing survey.

And this is where he saw the change.

“We observed this kind of strange thing about these people who are high in science curiosity,” he says. The more scientifically curious a person, the less likely she was to show partisan bias in answering questions. “They seem to be moving in lockstep rather than polarizing as they became more science-curious.”

Usually, in Kahan’s studies, when people are more engaged in a subject, they’re more partisan about it. And he found that here: Republicans and Democrats who knew a lot about science were polarized on hot-button questions. But that trend went away when he sorted the participants by their “science curiosity” scores instead of their “science knowledge” scores.

You can see it here. Highly curious Republican and Democrats were much closer in their responses (the chart on the right) compared with Republicans and Democrats who knew a lot about science (the chart on the left). The science-curious Republicans are still less likely to say global warming presents an “extremely high risk.”

But what’s notable — and rare — is that the curious Democrats and curious Republicans are converging on the same answer, not moving apart.

And look at what happens when Kahan asks participants to agree or disagree with the statement, “There is solid evidence of recent global warming due to mostly human activity.”

There’s a gulf in the answers between highly intelligent Democrats and Republicans (the chart on the left). Again, the most curious Democrats and Republicans are not as polarized on the question.

Science curiosity and science knowledge are not the same thing. “One is about an ability to comprehend science; the other is a kind of desire for the pleasure of finding out what science knows for its own sake,” Kahan says. And they’re not necessarily related to one another: You can have little science knowledge but still be very curious. The correlation between science curiosity and science knowledge is 0.26 (with 1 being a perfect correlation and 0 meaning there is none).

As science curiosity rises, science intelligence rises, limply (see in the chart below).

Which is to say: To be curious, you don’t need to be a genius.

The science-curious are more likely to seek out information that contradicts their group’s beliefs

Kahan and his colleagues put “scientific curiosity” to more tests to see if the science-curious not only thought differently but behaved differently.

In one test, a group of study participants were given a selection of articles about climate change. The instructions of the experiment simply read: “Pick the story most interesting to you.”

The articles were framed to be either “surprising” or “unsurprising.” And the content of the articles was either supportive of climate change science or skeptical of it.

  • “Scientists Find Still More Evidence that Global Warming Actually Slowed in Last Decade” is a headline that’s both unsurprising and skeptical.
  • “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Ice Increasing in Antarctic, Not Currently Contributing to Sea Level Rise” is surprising and skeptical.
  • “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Arctic Ice Melting Even Faster Than Expected” is surprising and supportive.
  • “Scientists Find Still More Evidence Linking Global Warming to Extreme Weather” is unsurprising and supportive.

Previous work in partisan bias would suggest that people would just choose the article that most neatly affirmed their preexisting beliefs, regardless of whether it was “surprising.”

Again, the science-curious stood out.

Science-curious Democrats were 44 percent more likely to read an article skeptical of global warming if it had a “surprising” headline. Science-curious Republicans were 20 percent more likely to choose an article supportive of global warming science if the information was supposedly “surprising.”

This suggests that what really drives these science-curious types is a desire to learn something surprising and new — not just to stick to information that affirms what they already believe.

Politics could use a greater sense of wonder

This is just one study. And in the paper, Kahan and his co-authors take pains to stress these findings are provisional. Any critical reader, they write, should demand “a regime for ‘stress testing’ before she treats the results as a basis for substantially reorganizing her understanding of the dynamics of political information processing.”

Kahan admits he needs to test more conditions under which science curiosity can succeed or fail. And it would be nice to know if science-curious people are reading “surprising” findings with a healthy dose of skepticism too, and aren’t duped by every new flashy headline that comes along.

That work will come. But for now, if there’s a lesson here, it’s that in our political debates, and political process, we could value scientific curiosity more. The public could champion politicians who are curious over politicians who are partisan. A curiosity mindset is what could broker consensus in an increasingly polarized country.

Perhaps that’s a bit naive. (The very structure of our institutions encourages partisanship.) But it is a tantalizing idea. Misinformation and partisan bias have given us a world filled with “alternative facts” and “fake news.” What if all it takes to navigate that world is a sense of wonder? That sounds achievable.

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