Tea Party Supporters And Scientific Literacy


Photo by jackiembarr

On social media there’s never a dull moment with all the interesting and fun things that are shared on it. Also never a shortage of misinformation that’s being bounced around in your preferred ideological echo chamber.

The latest example of this was a tweet by Marc Morano that said “Yale Professor ‘Embarrassed’ to Discover Tea Party Members are Scientifically Literate” and linked to an article on CNS News (archived here):

You know that line liberals love to lob at the Tea Party: you’re stupid.  Well, obviously that’s not the case, nor has it ever been true.  Now, a Yale professor has released some new research showing that the so-called “Tea Party radicals” are actually scientifically literate.

Professor Dan M. Kahan of the psychology department at Yale says he was surprised to discover a positive correlation between science comprehension and members of the Tea Party:

“Identifying with the Tea Party correlates positively (r = 0.05, p = 0.05) with scores on the science comprehension measure.”

“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.”


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


Well, perhaps some of those previous opinions could’ve been dispelled earlier when the New York Times wrote in 2010 that Tea Partiers are more educated – and financially better off – than the rest of the public.

The problem with how the author of this paper is quoted is that it misrepresents his point. What he’s surprised about is that Tea Party supporters according to his data are scientific literate. But he also says this in the same blog post:

In this dataset, I found that there is a small correlation (r = -0.05, p = 0.03) between the science comprehension measure and a left-right political outlook measure, Conservrepub, which aggregates liberal-conservative ideology and party self-identification. The sign of the correlation indicates that science comprehension decreases as political outlooks move in the rightward direction–i.e., the more “liberal” and “Democrat,” the more science comprehending.

Do you think this helps explain conflicts over climate change or other forms of decision-relevant science? I don’t.

But if you do, then maybe you’ll find this interesting.  The dataset happened to have an item in it that asked respondents if they considered themselves “part of the Tea Party movement.” Nineteen percent said yes.

It turns out that there is about as strong a correlation between scores on the science comprehension scale and identifying with the Tea Party as there is between scores on the science comprehension scale and Conservrepub.

Except that it has the opposite sign: that is, identifying with the Tea Party correlates positively (r = 0.05,p = 0.05) with scores on the science comprehension measure.

Again, the relationship is trivially small, and can’t possibly be contributing in any way to the ferocious conflicts over decision-relevant science that we are experiencing.

What he’s talking about is the disconnect between what the scientific literature says on a subject and how people act towards it in the context of politics. The author, Dan Kahan, originally thought that this disconnect also translated to scientific literacy. But it doesn’t, and it’s something I’ve known for years.

You can talk about a lot science subjects with climate science deniers, I’ve had some very fun and interesting exchanges. Those that reject valid climate research have no problem accepting and understanding other scientific findings. And most of the people I interact with have the necessary education to understand these subjects.

The problem arises when scientific findings clash with political positions. In the case of climate science deniers it’s when you start talking about the environment, especially in the context of human caused global warming. That’s when people who are perfectly rational and are scientific literates suddenly reject valid scientific findings. This is what can make someone appear “stupid” when they aren’t.

It doesn’t matter how trivial it is, often they will outright reject anything that contradicts their position. Which makes it extremely difficult to have a factual based discussion with a climate science denier. This behaviour doesn’t stem from not understanding science, but it’s their ideological mental armour that’s preventing them from accepting valid scientific findings.

I wrote quite a bit about this in my blog post ‘The Ideological Armour Of ‘Climate Sceptics’‘ and how this manifests itself. It’s a very interesting and relevant subject in the context of science communication.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. The data the author used for his change of mind about the scientific literacy of Tea Party supporters is the same data he used for his paper ‘Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study‘. This is what it says in the abstract (there’s more in the paper itself which is interesting, emphasis mine):

Social psychologists have identified various plausible sources of ideological polarization over climate change, gun violence, national security, and like societal risks. This paper describes a study of three of them: the predominance of heuristic-driven information processing by members of the public; ideologically motivated cognition; and personality-trait correlates of political conservativism. The results of the study suggest reason to doubt two common surmises about how these dynamics interact. First, the study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups. The paper discusses the normative significance of these findings, including the need to develop science communication strategies that shield policy-relevant facts from the influences that turn them into divisive symbols of identity.

What this paper found is that the better you are at applying reasoning skills you are more skilled at motivated reasoning. Meaning you use your reasoning skills to maintain a position that is not supported by evidence. Anyone who has ever interacted with science deniers will instantly recognize this.

Which also makes the CNS News article a fine example of motivated reasoning that maintains the illusion that the Tea Party has positions on science that are correct.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.