22 September 2017

Polarization and Education

True or False: Is more science education all it takes for us to agree on scientific and technological issues?

Welcome back. As you can see from the blog post title, today’s post is about polarization, not partisanship, which I’ve blogged about many times. To be clear, I’ll define polarization as a division into contrasting opinions or beliefs, and partisanship as a strong adherence to a party or cause. 
Human evolution, a controversial
topic. (multiple websites)

The two can certainly overlap, particularly on controversial topics, such as human evolution, the Big Bang Theory, stem cell research, climate change, genetically modified foods (GMOs) and nanotechnology.

Since those six topics fall into the realm of science, wouldn’t you expect reduced polarization with increased education, at least education in the sciences? Isn’t that in line with why we marched last April (Marching for Science)?

Well, it doesn’t happen, as shown most recently by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University. In fact, they found the opposite: increased education, increased polarization.

General Social Survey Data
To investigate whether people with more education and greater science knowledge express beliefs that are less polarized, the researchers used nationally representative data from the General Social Survey. GSS data on American society--demographic, behavioral and attitudinal, plus topics of special interest--have been collected since 1972 by NORC at the University of Chicago (that is the name), with National Science Foundation support. The GSS is considered the single best source for U.S. sociological and attitudinal trend data.

The researchers focused on 2006 and 2010 iterations of GSS questions regarding both general and scientific education, scientific literacy, political and religious identify, as well as opinions on various scientific issues, including those pertaining to the six topics.  

Stem cell research, a controversial
topic. (multiple websites)
Correlating Polarization with Education
As you’d expect, they found that beliefs were correlated with both political and religious identity for three topics--human evolution, the Big Bang Theory and stem cell research--and with political identity alone for climate change.

But here’s the biggie: They also found individuals with more education, science education and science literacy displayed more polarized beliefs on those issues.

On the bright side, they found little evidence of political or religious polarization regarding nanotechnology and genetically modified foods, topics that are controversial on other grounds.

Overall, the patterns suggest that greater scientific knowledge, rather than fostering agreement, may facilitate the defense of positions motivated by nonscientific concerns. A key factor is thought to be trust. On all six topics, people who had more trust in the scientific enterprise were more likely to accept its findings.

Wrap Up
I go along with those who judge that the politicization of scientific issues is, at least in part, a consequence of the decline in trust in science among conservatives.

In a 2014 blog post, Trust a Scientist, I reported: polls that address science find that differences attributed to political affiliation exceed other differences--gender, age, race, family income, geographic region. Republicans, especially Tea-Party Republicans, had by far the least trust in what scientists say.

Note the overlap in polarization and partisanship. And thanks for stopping by.

Has the U.S. population clustered as Bill Bishop suggested in The Big Sort? (Cartoon by Rick Meyerowitz from www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/books/review/Stossel-t.html?mcubz=0)
Carnegie Mellon study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/08/15/1704882114
Articles on study on Ars Technica and ScienceDaily websites:
General Social Survey website: gss.norc.org/About-The-GSS

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