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Bridging partisan divides over scientific issues

The current era in the Western hemisphere is marked by growing public distrust of “intellectual elites.” The present US administration openly disregards, or even suppresses, relevant scientific input to policy formulation. Research results that appear to conflict with deeply held political or religious beliefs, such as those on climate change or Big Bang cosmology, exacerbate already strong partisan divisions.

That’s the bad news. But there’s good news, as well. Periodic surveys of American attitudes, published by the National Science Board, show public trust in scientific leaders holding steady over the past four decades, while trust in leaders from other sectors (medicine, education, television, the press) has significantly deteriorated. In these surveys, about 90% of respondents express “a great deal of confidence” or “some confidence” in scientific leaders. In other surveys, a majority of respondents believed scientists were more knowledgeable and impartial, and therefore should play a greater role than elected officials, business leaders or religious leaders in policy decisions about climate change, stem cell research, genetically modified food, and nuclear power.

Scientists need to reinforce this reservoir of trust by listening and communicating with integrity, clarity in distinguishing fact from speculation, and fairness in representing arguments for and against alternative views. But that trust is a weaker determining factor for public attitudes than political or religious identification. Polling surveys offer guidance about how to educate the public on controversial scientific topics in the light of existing partisan divides. The challenge is illustrated starkly for the case of climate science by results in the figure below from a study by Kahan. Kahan’s and similar surveys show the partisan divide on the existence and causes of global warming growing much stronger as general scientific literacy increases. The polarization grows presumably because better-educated individuals are more skilled at finding or offering arguments that appear to confirm their pre-existing biases, even if those favored arguments misrepresent the underlying science.

Image credit: The fraction of respondents who agree with the statement above the figure, as a function of their performance on questions covering general science knowledge on non-controversial subjects. The left frame shows the aggregate response, while the right frame is subdivided by self-identified political identification of the respondents. By D.M. Kahan, Advances in Political Psychology 36(S1), 1 (2015). © 2015, John Wiley and Sons.

Exposure to yet more research results is unlikely to sway scientific opinions among the most polarized individuals. There is, however, a broad spectrum of opinion revealed in recent surveys of American attitudes toward climate change, carried out by groups from Yale and George Mason Universities.  Those surveys find that more than 70% of the public have attitudes falling between two extremes labeled as “alarmed” (convinced of global warming and engaged to act on it) and “dismissive” (rejecting the phenomenon and strongly opposing mitigating action). Respondents with attitudes between these extremes, subdivided further into four groups (“concerned,” “cautious,” “disengaged,” and “doubtful”), are more ambivalent or currently less engaged in their views about climate change.

Educational efforts to bridge partisan divides on controversial scientific issues are best targeted at individuals in such middle segments of the populace. A productive approach should emphasize the following three components of such education.

1) Emphasize the degree of consensus among scientists actively working in the field. Various surveys have identified perceptions of scientific consensus on climate change as a key “gateway belief,” influencing other opinions about the issue and support for policy action. While surveys of climate scientists and peer-reviewed research papers systematically indicate that about 97% of the most knowledgeable scientists agree that the global climate is changing, with human activity as a major cause, only c.10% of Americans correctly estimate the level of consensus as “greater than 90%.” In a recent study, van der Linden and colleagues found that “increasing public perceptions of the scientific consensus causes a significant increase in the belief that climate change is (a) happening, (b) human-caused and (c) a worrisome problem. In turn, changes in these key beliefs lead to increased support for public action. … In fact, the consensus message had a larger influence on Republican respondents.”

2) Improve education and communication about the scientific method and scientific reasoning, emphasizing how scientists know what they know. Scientific literacy in surveys discussed above has generally been measured by the number of correct answers to general scientific knowledge questions on non-controversial subjects. Other surveys have tried instead to measure “scientific reasoning ability” via questions regarding how to evaluate scientific evidence. These surveys find that higher scores on the scientific reasoning scale are a better predictor than “scientific literacy” for individual’s acceptance of the scientific consensus on vaccines, genetically modified foods, and human evolution, though not on climate change or the Big Bang. On the latter subjects, polarization gets “baked in” with increasing age, and is driven in large part by organized groups providing cherry-picked or doctored information to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. It is important for future policy discussions to train students effectively to appreciate scientific reasoning and to provide resources to help them recognize the standard tools of science deniers and the differences between solid science and pseudoscience.

3) Emphasize current impacts of long-term problems, as well as promising mitigating actions. In competition with a wide array of pressing issues, the public expresses less concern about problems they judge to be distant or not amenable to viable solutions. On climate change it is important to stress serious impacts already being felt, aided by actuarial surveys that clearly document the steadily growing frequency over the past several decades of extreme weather events correlated with warming global temperatures and sea level rise. Another scientific issue largely ignored by the public, that of evolving bacterial resistance to antibiotics, is projected to cause 10 million deaths and US$100 trillion globally per year by 2050 if left unaddressed. The public needs to be educated about current effects and causes: in the U.S. alone, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that currently at least 2 million people annually battle, and at least 23,000 die from, bacterial infections now resistant to one or more antibiotics, and that 50% of all antibiotics prescribed in the U.S. are unwarranted. On both climate change and antibiotic resistance issues, there are mitigating actions individuals can take, and others they can lobby for, to help ameliorate the problem. Education about such actions tends to increase public engagement.

Featured image credit: Capitol at Dusk 2 by Martin Falbisoner. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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