When Science Communication Backfires

Bild: ensia.com
Increased polarization calls not for surrender, but for a fresh approach.

By Greg Breiningensia

Those of us involved in journalism, education and science like to believe that facts and science illuminate the way through contentious debates. We believe that given ample evidence, thoroughly weighed, we will arrive at some consensus. At the very least, our viewpoints will converge. This devotion to objective facts, the scientific method and the primacy of evidence is the basis for a liberal democracy.

Oh, how very 18th century.

According to Yale professor of law and psychology Dan Kahan in a paper published last year in the journal Nature Climate Change, with greater knowledge of science and ability in rational reasoning, people don’t reach consensus. Indeed, on topics with political overtones, such as global warming, people become more polarized with greater science literacy.

If people disagree with scientists, Kahan and his co-authors state, it’s not necessarily because they lack knowledge, or even that they take intellectual shortcuts to come to their opinions. If that were true, on an issue such as global warming, about which scientists have a great deal of consensus, we’d expect citizens to come to agreement as their knowledge of the issue increases.

Quite the contrary, says the study, which looked at a broadly representative sample of more than 1,500 people and their attitudes toward global warming and nuclear power.

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