The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

For the Love of Science

published January 2018

Combating science denial with science pleasure

Scientific American (cover)

That conservatives doubt scientific findings and theories that conflict with their political and religious beliefs is evident from even a cursory scan of right-leaning media. The denial of evolution and of global warming and the pushback against stem cell research are the most egregious examples in recent decades. It is not surprising, because we expect those on the right to let their politics trump science—tantamount to a dog-bites-man story.

That liberals are just as guilty of antiscience bias comports more with accounts of humans chomping canines, and yet those on the left are just as skeptical of well-established science when findings clash with their political ideologies, such as with GMOs, nuclear power, genetic engineering and evolutionary psychology—skepticism of the last I call “cognitive creationism” for its endorsement of a blank-slate model of the mind in which natural selection operated on humans only from the neck down.

In reality, antiscience attitudes are formed in very narrow cognitive windows—those in which science appears to oppose certain political or religious views. Most people embrace most of science most of the time.

Who is skeptical of science, then, and when?

That question was the title of an October 2017 talk I attended by Asheley R. Landrum, a psychologist at Texas Tech University, who studies factors influencing the public understanding and perception of science, health and emerging technologies. She began by citing surveys that found more than 90 percent of both Republicans and Democrats agreed that “science and technology give more opportunities” and that “science makes our lives better.” She also reviewed modest evidence in support of the “knowledge deficit hypothesis,” which posits that public skepticism of science is the result of inadequate scientific knowledge. Those who know more about climate science, for example, are slightly more likely to accept that global warming is real and caused by humans than those who know less on the subject.

But that modest effect not only is erased when political ideology is factored in, it has an opposite effect on one end of the political spectrum. For Republicans, the more knowledge they have about climate science the less likely they are to accept the theory of anthropogenic global warming (whereas Democrats’ confidence goes up). “People with more knowledge only accept science when it doesn’t conflict with their preexisting beliefs and values,” Landrum explained. “Otherwise, they use that knowledge to more strongly justify their own positions.”

Landrum and her colleagues demonstrated the effect experimentally and reported the results in a 2017 paper in the Journal of Risk Research entitled “Culturally Antagonistic Memes and the Zika Virus: An Experimental Test,” in which participants read a news story on Zika public health risks that was linked to either climate change or immigration. Predictably, when Zika was connected to climate change, there was an increase in concern among Democrats and a decrease in concern among Republicans, but when Zika was associated with immigration, the effects were reversed. Skepticism, it would seem, is context-dependent. “We are good at being skeptical when information conflicts with our preexisting beliefs and values,” Landrum noted. “We are bad at being skeptical when information is compatible with our preexisting beliefs and values.”

In another 2017 study published in Advances in Political Psychology, “Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing,” Landrum and her colleagues found that liberal Democrats were far less likely than strong Republicans to voluntarily read a “surprising climate-skeptical story,” whereas a “surprising climate-concerned story” was far more likely to be read by those on the left than on the right. One encouraging mitigating factor was “science curiosity,” or the “motivation to seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure,” which “seems to counteract rather than aggravate the signature characteristics of politically motivated reasoning.”

The authors concluded that “individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open-mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.”

In other words, valuing science for pure pleasure is more of a bulwark against the politicization of science than facts alone.

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11 Comments to “For the Love of Science”

  1. John A. Johnson Says:

    This brings to mind the Murray Davis article on what constitutes an interesting theory. Davis suggests that interesting theories are those that deny certain assumptions of the audience. What is missing from Davis’s view is that some of us are intrigued when our assumptions are challenged, while others are annoyed. I would suggest that Davis’s view is most correct for those of us with what Landrum et al. call “science curiosity.”

    The Davis article can be found at https://proseminarcrossnationalstudies.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/thatsinteresting_1971.pdf .

  2. Pete Says:

    I’ll defend liberals, since I am one on most issues. Shermer cites four cases to show liberals can also have anti-science biases. Two of the four, GMO’s and Genetic Engineering, could legitimately be considered the same thing. GMO’s may be safe to consume but have not been around long enough to definitively say they are safe, while there is ample evidence that they are NOT safe for the environment…for example, the rise of superweeds and the fact that they have led to increased herbicide use. There are also massive problems with GMO’s polluting neighboring organic operations, jeopardizing their certifications. (I’m a organic farmer myself.) I don’t know why nuclear power is included, given its massive historical safety problems, its ungodly pollution of the planet, its replacement of true renewables, and its outrageous expense now and down the road. That leaves just one area, evolutionary psychology which perhaps is a legitimate area. But the extent of public education in this area is rather lacking, so perhaps the liberals and everyone else just need more educating. He could have added New Age beliefs in general, which are probably more predominant on the left. Nonetheless, from my experience, I would have to say that overall the right is far more prone to anti-science attitudes and just plain scientific ignorance. While Shermer is right that the left is not immune from same, I reject any false equivalency.

  3. Prof. Emeritus Ferrel Christensen Says:

    Careful–the Left’s opposition to GMOs, nuclear power and genetic engineering is not a denial of the scientific evidence involved, but to how the knowledge is being used. The one concrete case of the Left (the Loony Left, not the rational Left) rejecting solid scientific evidence is indeed its blank-slate rejection of evolutionary psychology. And then it is mostly Loony Feminism, which abhors innate gender differences the way nature abhors a vacuum. More broadly, with their “standpoint theory” and denunciation of “male science”, Loony Left feminists–seemingly the dominant kind of feminists in academia today–are far more grossly anti-science than even the Righteous Right.

  4. Mike Colyar Says:

    This article attempts to create a false equivalency between opposition to a specific technology and denial of the science. Case in point, the use of hormones to increase milk production.
    There is no reproducible publication that I have seen that shows that the hormones fed to the cows show up in the milk. My opposition is due to the effects on the cow and the farmer. The cow’s health is degraded by their use. The farmer is driven yet further into the claws of the banker. I reject absolutely the reactionary and greed based notion that my only input to the process is the quality and value of the final product to me personally. I am and will continue to be concerned and involved in issues beyond the immediate personal effects of my economic actions. I am informed and aware of scientific issues and a humanist and a liberal politically. I find that those in opposition to the realities that science reveals are very largely concentrated in the fearful, ignorant and reactionary political right.

  5. Larry Marko Says:

    Very few people will deny the existence of climate change, but the extent to which humans are responsible for the warming of the planet is very much open to debate. The science is not settled.

  6. Andrew Kadar Says:

    Shermer shows glaring left wing bias by finding it surprising that those on the left have anti-scientific attitudes. Leftist bias leaves people susceptible to any idea that claims that people are ruining the world. Hence leftists readily accept and exaggerate the human contribution to anything they feel is harmful. That includes claims about climate and genetic engineering.

  7. Pete Says:

    Andrew, I do not think the left claims that people per se are ruining the world but many do have legitimate concerns, backed by loads of ecological and environmental evidence and basic universal (all species) population dynamics, that TOO MANY humans are very definitely causing serious damage.

    Professor Christensen, I agreed until your bit about “loony feminism”. Feminism’s contributions to society are huge, including more options for women than simple childbearing and child-rearing, something that sadly still exists in much of the Third World. These options have led to extremely important, albeit still insufficient, falling birth rates for much of the world. I would agree that there are gender differences but much of that is learned. Some may be innate. All things considered, I’ve found that women are, on average, of course, smarter than men.

  8. Graham Weir (New Zealand) Says:

    Two of Pete’s comments are worth a response.
    First he casts doubts on GMOs, but fails to recognise that GM has been around for many many many years. What else is cross breeding of plants and animals to produce something new – the result is alwys modified dna is it not?
    As for nuclear power – yes the waste is a problem which will come back to bite future residents of the planet, but the safety record is not. How many powerplants have produce unwanted radiation? Noy many, compared to the number in operation.

  9. Dave Van Wyk Says:


    As I suspect you are, I am also a libertarian — but I have a question — 100% of liberals believe in AGW, most of them knowing less science than I — non-liberals are split on the issue — it seems to me that that indicates who are basing their conclusion on politics rather than science — now I know you are a believer in AGW, and you myt be ryt, but doesn’t that give you pause? — add to that I heard on Public Radio in NH years ago that the issue is settled science and deniers are refused publication in several magazines — do you agree with that?

    Dave Van Wyk
    VanDWyk@hotmail.com
    Hampton, NH

  10. William Says:

    G.W. wrote: “First he casts doubts on GMOs, but fails to recognise that GM has been around for many many many years. What else is cross breeding of plants and animals to produce something new – the result is alwys modified dna is it not?”

    Yes, but all you can say is the same is that the DNA is modified. Cross-breeding uses genetics that already exist in the parent plants. GMO plants have had foreign DNA strands/segments injected into the plant. That foreign DNA might not even be plant based.

    Whether this may be a problem is still uncertain. For example, what if the DNA segment from the Foxglove plant that produces digitalis? Would the corn become toxic because of this injection? Would it become so immediately or only after some random cross-breeding with some other strain of corn, or maybe even a different GMO variation?

    What we do know is that much/most of the GMO modifications are to make the plant more resistant to herbicides/pesticides. So massive amounts of herbicides/pesticides can now be used during growing the plant and some of it is almost certain to be taken up by the plant and deposited in its tissues/seeds. That means you are going to be eating those foreign chemicals – just so the mega-farms can produce larger crops with less effort.

  11. Pete Says:

    Graham, traditional plant breeding is indeed fundamentally different from genetic engineering. In the latter, genes are transferred from one species to another. As an organic farmer, I love the traditional breeding, as it leads to new and improved varieties, with my main interest being disease resistance.
    Regarding nukes, yes most have not had major accidents but there are still radiation releases all the time which those in charge dubiously claim are safe to the public. Further, this is an industry in which even one major accident is catastrophic and I can think of three right off the bat. Finally, humanity has the massive burden of keeping the waste isolated for tens of thousands of years. Good luck!