By Ellen Haggerty

This story was synthesized from a report written for Dr. Paul Wagner’s Risk and Rationality in Global Sustainability course in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources (Online) program.

Could increasing science education be the answer to finding common ground in a politically and culturally polarized society? And can it help foster collaborative action on existential global issues like climate change?

KQED, a television station interested in broadening the audience of their scientific programming to include millennials, conducted a study and found that people most interested in watching science programming were less polarized on climate change. In 2018, their follow-up national survey found that science curiosity can overcome political and cultural beliefs and lessen polarization on several topics typically important to conservatives and liberals. Because of the power of cultural cognition to interfere with rationality and perceptions of risk, it is important to encourage science curiosity and an openness to changing one’s mind. Additional research is needed regarding how best to encourage truthful evaluation of data or information that do not align with one’s group or preconceived opinions, and how to communicate science in ways that promote curiosity instead of triggering politically motivated reasoning.

Knowledge versus opinion
Dan Kahan et al. describe science curiosity as a desire to seek out and consume scientific information simply for pleasure and not academic reasons. Kahan et al. identified two cognitive mechanisms or dynamics to explain why science curiosity diminishes politically biased engagement with information: 1) Bayesian Convergence Conjecture, which opines that polarization is based in selecting data inputs (which has shown to have less of an impact in their studies); and 2) Cognitive Dualism, where it is possible to “disbelieve” something while demonstrating belonging in a group but “believe” something when asked to demonstrate knowledge. This raises the question, if opinion surveys on climate change or other issues were framed as knowledge tests instead of opinion tests, would the results change? Is there a way to leverage this information to force a reckoning with one’s beliefs?

Increasing science curiosity
Successful teaching techniques can inspire genuine science curiosity and guide science communicators on how to tap into existing science curiosity. Scientific research should also be collaborative partnerships wherein researchers work with local communities to understand their knowledge, beliefs, and lived experiences. Kahan and his co-authors worked with the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact to develop communications designed to foster science curiosity as well as strategies for “social proof”—the tendency of people to conform their behavior to those they recognize as informed and socially competent.

Julia Galef, co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality and author of the book The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, recommends these techniques to help foster open-mindedness and counteract cultural cognition:

  • If you read something you disagree with, imagine someone you like saying the same thing and see if it changes your reaction.
  • Purposefully look for evidence that does not support your point of view.
  • Be aware of your reaction to opinions or viewpoints.
  • Monitor yourself for defensiveness that might cloud your judgment.

Holding ourselves accountable and observing the way we react and respond to information is important both for self-reflection and for growth. This “scientific integrity” should be one of the main focuses of science and education. 

Influencing change
Galef notes that people are more likely to change their mind either when their group changes their position or when they are forced by circumstance. However, the goal should be to change people’s minds before they are forced, especially when it comes to climate change.

Our openness, curiosity, and creativity diminish as we age, and this can contribute to the rigidness in our beliefs, opinions, and knowledge seeking. A NASA-funded study measured creativity in children and found that 98% of 5-year-olds scored the highest possible score, while only 30% of 10-year-olds, 12% of 15-year-olds, and less than 2% of adults scored as well. Adults can still rebuild their critical thinking and openness by reading outside their field, asking questions of people who think differently, talking less and listening more, immersing themselves deeply in a new topic, and spending time with children. 

When engaging audiences on topics of risk, we must increase rationality. We can do this through smart communications, such as tailoring the messaging to be solutions-oriented and relating to the audience through shared values and collective purpose. Climate Outreach suggests that when communicating with those on the center-right that may be more skeptical about climate change, framing the issue around themes such as security, heritage, freedom, and way of life can be effective. The audience may be more willing to consider the message if the communicator emphasizes shared values and purpose so that the audience can see themselves in the solution.

Further research is needed
The National Academy of Science recognizes the need for additional research about science communication specifically due to cultural cognition. This research can include the effects on audiences when science communicators are open about their own values and preferences, the best strategies for communicating contentious issues, and how early to engage the public. It is important to note that we can find common ground more often than not and that scientific consensus does generally work but sometimes gets overshadowed by the more contentious issues. With additional research about how to improve science curiosity, including how to overcome politically motivated reasoning and focusing on science curiosity in education and the workplace, perhaps consensus on some of the remaining contentious sustainability issues can be achieved.

MNR Online student Ellen Haggerty

Ellen Haggerty has a background in civil and environmental engineering and worked for 22 years in environmental site remediation. She enrolled in the Virginia Tech Master of Natural Resources (Online) program with the intention of pursuing a proactive instead of reactive focus in the next phase of her career. She lives with her husband, kids, and dogs in New Jersey, but spends as much time as possible outside in Vermont.