Tea Partiers Aren’t as Scientifically Stupid as Believed – Concludes One Smart Liberal

Those that read this blog know that I’m a fan of Dan Kahan, although I don’t know him personally and he and I don’t hang together in the same political spheres.  Kahan has conducted some interesting research on cultural cognition as it relates to climate change and other controversial topics, like vaccines, that require an intellectual capacity (and willingness) to understand scientifically complex issues.  But before delving into Kahan’s interesting results, a brief refresher on linear regression analysis.  The higher the r-value, ranging from 1.0 to -1.0, the stronger the correlation between two variables.  When doing linear regression, you can have both negative and positive correlations.  It should come, therefore, as no surprise to learn that those who are more highly educated tend to have higher scientific literacy and comprehension than those less educated, r-value of 0.36, as shown by the histogram below.  Full post over on Kahan’s blog here

  

In contrast, Kahan has found a fairly strong negative correlation (-0.26) between science literacy and comprehension and religious belief, as shown in the next histogram.  That is, those who are more religious tend to be less scientifically literate. 

However, Kahan tends to downplay this correlation:

I frankly don’t think that that’s a very big deal. There are plenty of highly religious folks who have a high science comprehension score, and plenty of secular ones who don’t. When it comes to conflict over decision-relevant science, it is likely to be more instructive to consider how religiosity and science comprehension interact, something I’ve explored previously.

Kahan goes on to explore the relationship between science literacy and political affiliation, and found a slightly negative correlation (-0.05) between science literacy and right-wing politics.  That is, liberals tend to be slightly more science literate than conservatives.

But what surprised Kahan next was the correlation between identifying with Tea Party and science literacy.  Turns out that there is a slight positive correlation between the two, i.e., Tea Partiers tend to be more scientifically literate than non-Tea Party members (i.e., both liberals and conservatives).  What I find somewhat amusing, however, is Kahan’s response:

I’ve got to confess, though, I found this result surprising. As I pushed the button to run the analysis on my computer, I fully expected I’d be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension.

But then again, I don’t know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party.  All my impressions come from watching cable tv — & I don’t watch Fox News very often — and reading the “paper” (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused internet sites like Huffington Post & Politico).  

I’m a little embarrassed, but mainly I’m just glad that I no longer hold this particular mistaken view.

Of course, I still subscribe to my various political and moral assessments–all very negative– of what I understand the “Tea Party movement” to stand for. I just no longer assume that the people who happen to hold those values are less likely than people who share my political outlooks to have acquired the sorts of knowledge and dispositions that a decent science comprehension scale measures.

I’ll now be much less surprised, too, if it turns out that someone I meet at, say, the Museum of Science in Boston, or the Chabot Space and Science Museum in Oakland, or the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is part of the 20% (geez– I must know some of them) who would answer “yes” when asked if he or she identifies with the Tea Party.  If the person is there, then it will almost certainly be the case that that he or she & I will agree on how cool the stuff is at the museum, even if we don’t agree about many other matters of consequence.

Next time I collect data, too, I won’t be surprised at all if the correlations between science comprehension and political ideology or identification with the Tea Party movement disappear or flip their signs.  These effects are trivially small, & if I sample 2000+ people it’s pretty likely any discrepancy I see will be “statistically significant”–which has precious little to do with “practically significant.”

Since Kahan claims not to know any Tea Partiers, I’ll be happy to introduce him to a few of my highly educated and yet highly skeptical friends.   However, at the time of this posting there were over 250 responses to Kahan’s post, many of them skeptical and, yes, some of educated and scientifically literate Tea Partiers.

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