Apr 24, 2017

Why a march may not change minds

Alison Snyder / Axios

A call for greater scientific literacy in the public and policy making echoed through Saturday's March for Science in Washington and satellite events around the world. Knowledge, reasoning goes, should lead us to a common solution. But people's attitudes toward some scientific issues are determined more by who they identify with rather than what they know, Yale law professor Dan Kahan said at a recent event at the university.

Our thought bubble: A march won't likely change peoples' positions on scientific issues that have become entangled with identity and politics (and it runs the risk of further polarizing people). The public divide over climate change and evolution isn't going to be solved by education, Kahan said. "Scientists shouldn't labor under the burden of thinking it is all their fault or they are going to save us." When communicating science, he suggested, "find some basis for using what science knows that is completely independent from denying your group identity."

Key takeaways:

  1. People who deny science are expected to not know much about it. But in a study by Kahan, those who were most polarized on the issue of climate change scored the highest on assessments of scientific literacy. They were using reasoning and evidence not to find out what's true but to cultivate their identity in a group, he said.
  2. The most polarized people are also the most curious and seek out information that challenges their political views, a finding Kahan describes as "heartwarming."
  3. Science isn't completely under siege. 40% of Americans say they have "great confidence" in the scientific community, a figure that has held steady for forty years making science one of the most and consistently trusted institutions in the U.S. While there are a minority of subjects that are very polarizing, Kahan said on most scientific issues people aren't actually divided. Left or right, people also perceived science as a useful endeavor:
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