News — June 18, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Conservatives and liberals united only by interest in dinosaurs, study shows


Hopes that science and its unending quest for the truth can mend the cracks in a divided society have taken a hit as new research has found liberals and conservatives share little common ground on the subject – apart from a fascination with dinosaurs.

Because science intends – in theory at least – to accrue facts from solid evidence, it stands a chance of bringing people together on issues they all agree with, such as the Earth circling the sun, and the first five digits of pi. That, the hope goes, might help reverse the social fragmentation that increasingly pits different groups against one another.

But the research published on Monday suggests that the potential for science to unite across the political divide might be rather limited. “It turns out that liberals and conservatives can agree about dinosaurs, but not much else,” said Michael Macy, director of the social dynamics lab and author on the study at Cornell University in New York.

With researchers at Yale and the University of Chicago, Macy pored over more than a million book purchases by people on the right and left of the political spectrum. He found that while both sides shared a broad interest in science, there was little overlap in the subjects they read, or the books they picked within scientific fields.

“We wanted to see to what extent science is something that liberals and conservatives might agree on, and if that could serve as a bridge across the political divide,” Macy said.

The researchers marked people as liberals or conservatives based on the political books they bought from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, two of the largest online booksellers in the US. Multiple books were used to define people’s political leanings, including Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father and Mitt Romney’s No Apology. The researchers then looked at what science books the people bought too, and sorted them into fields such as medicine, psychology, climatology and oceanography.

The results showed that liberals generally preferred basic science, including physics, astronomy and zoology, while conservatives favoured the more applied and commercial sciences, with topics ranging from criminology and medicine to geophysics. Books on dinosaurs, and palaeontology in general, were popular in both groups, as was veterinary medicine. “The more the science gets away from anything remotely politically relevant, the more likely it is to serve as a bridge,” said Macy.

Even within subjects, liberals and conservatives read very different books. Among the biology books read by liberals was The Greatest Show on Earth: the evidence for evolution by Richard Dawkins, with conservatives opting more for The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design by Jonathan Wells. In the field of astronomy, conservatives might go for God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow, with liberals favouring Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.

“You could say that liberals were a bit more interested in science for its own sake. Conservatives seem somewhat more interested in science where there is a conservative political alignment,” said Macy, whose study appears in Nature Human Behaviour.

The authors call on teachers, lecturers and scientists themselves to up their game on a number of counts. “First and foremost we need to get people excited about science for science’s sake. The second thing is for the sciences to encourage the appreciation of the critical perspective that scientists use,” Macy said.

Meanwhile, those in the social sciences in particular should do more to help people to break out of their “echo chambers” and discuss their views with people who disagree with them. That would help people to better understand not only others’ arguments, but their own too, Macy said.

In work published last year, Dan Kahan, a professor of law at Yale University, found that fostering scientific curiosity helped people to engage openly with information that went against their political stances. “I still think there is room to think science curiosity can help promote public agreement on disputed science issues,” he said.

Miles Hewstone, director of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict said there was “an increasing and worrying trend of such social fragmentation” based on ideology, religion and views of science. “We have to find ways to keep the two sides talking to each other, or at least aware of, and preferably respectful of, each other’s positions,” he said.

“Suggested ways to do this include provision of an on-screen button where we can choose to overcome the selective exposure identified in this research. That may seem like a long shot, when opinions are so entrenched, but as Jane Austen warned, ‘It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first’.”

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