WARNING: Before you read this article, beware that the more scientifically literate you are, the more likely you are to misinterpret this information in a way that supports your own ideology.
Sorry. According to psychologist and political scientist Dan Kahan, even seeing that warning won’t help you. “Being warned about cognitive biases doesn't immunize someone from them,” says Kahan, who works at Yale University.
So reader, continue at your peril, as you learn that Kahan is now embroiled in a politically charged controversy in which, he says, his own research on the misinterpretation of scientific research is being deeply misinterpreted.
“I’m so tired of this,” he tells ScienceInsider.
It started innocently on 15 October. On his blog, Kahan posted an informal analysis of survey data that compares people’s comprehension of scientific concepts and their political outlook. The data were gathered from a large U.S. study of how people perceive the risk of vaccination. And when Kahan crunched the numbers, they revealed a small correlation between science comprehension and political leaning. One finding: Those who identified themselves as “liberal” tended to have greater scientific comprehension than those who self-identified as “conservative.”
Or, as Kahan put it: “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.” Statistically, the effect was small—a correlation coefficient of r = 0.05—and only weakly significant, with a probability of p = 0.03. That is just under the traditionally accepted threshold of p = 0.05 that researchers use to identify a correlation that is unlikely enough to be the result of chance alone.
Many studies of people’s ideological leanings and ability to parse scientific information have found similar correlations. It has added up to the widespread perception that politically conservative beliefs go hand in hand with poor scientific understanding.
But Kahan cautions that this interpretation, known as the asymmetric hypothesis, is itself an example of the misinterpretation of scientific information. And he argues that the available data instead supports the symmetric hypothesis, which holds that such biases apply equally to liberal-leaning people.