Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Speaking of Science: What Democrats and Republicans know about science

Speaking of Science
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The Pew Research Center in January asked nearly 4,500 adults to answer 11 multiple-choice questions about science. It released the report Thursday, slicing up the responses by political leanings and other demographics.

Moderates on the political spectrum scored the closest to the average, which in the surveyed population was about 7 in 11 correct. People typically understood that antibiotic overuse leads to resistance, for instance; fewer knew that antacids neutralize stomach acid because they are made of bases.

Though a 63 percent score might not get a pop quiz hung up on the fridge, wrong answers here don't suggest a sorry state of scientific literacy. Pollsters who survey scientific knowledge deliberately include questions they know will stump some people.

("If everybody got it right, we wouldn't use it," Michigan State University professor John Besley, who studies public opinion about science and has conducted research similar to Pew's, told 538 last week. "And if everybody got it wrong, we wouldn't use it.")

Moderates score lower on scientific literacy than more conservative Republicans or more liberal Democrats. (Pew Research Center)

Moderate and conservative Democrats had the lowest scientific literacy, as judged by the report, answering questions correctly only half the time. The average moderate Republicans did somewhat better, at 6.5 out of 11 correct. But those further at the ends of the political divide, liberal Democrats (7.8 in 11 correct) and conservative Republicans (7.4 in 11), fared the best.

Why doesn't scientific knowledge push people to the middle? Research by Yale University behavioral economist Dan Kahan offers one explanation: Using data to make an argument more frequently bolsters partisan opinions, not lessens them. That's because, as Kahan told Quartz in 2016, people like to collect information that supports our ideas, rather than gathering information before making up our minds.


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