Although I have had much respect for Dan Kahan’s work, I have had a little trouble with the Identity protective Cognition Thesis (ICT). The portion in bold in the quote below from “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government” has never rung true.

On matters like climate change, nuclear waste disposal, the financing of economic stimulus programs, and the like, an ordinary citizen pays no price for forming a perception of fact that is contrary to the best available empirical evidence: That individual’s personal beliefs and related actions—as consumer, voter, or public discussant—are too inconsequential to affect the level of risk he or anyone else faces or the outcome of any public policy debate. However, if he gets the ‘wrong answer” in relation to the one that is expected of members of his affinity group, the impact could be devastating: the loss of trust among peers, stigmatization within his community, and even the loss of economic opportunities.

Why should Thanksgiving be so painful if it were true? I do not even know what my friends think of these things. Now at some point issues like climate change become so politically tainted that you may avoid talking about them to not antagonize your friends, but that does not change my view. But now Kahan has a better explanation.

The post is based on the paper: “Curiosity and Political Information”, a preprint in
Advances in Pol. Psychology, authored by Dan M. Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. This article describes evidence suggesting that science curiosity counteracts politically biased information processing.

The data  described was gathered as part of an exercise to demonstrate the utility of the new “science of science communication” for the craft of science filmmaking. The “science curiosity” measure was a tool developed to measure a distinctive appetite for consuming science-related media for personal enjoyment.  The authors anticipated that this focus would help them to negotiate at least some of the obstacles that had constrained previous efforts to measure curiosity. Kahan et. al. did several things to create a curiosity measure.

  • They created a concrete object for “science curiosity”.
  • They did not dispense with self-report measures, but did supplement them with behavioral and objective-performance ones that were believed to be more trustworthy indicators of the underlying disposition and that could be used to identify which self-report measures genuinely possessed predictive validity.
  • To minimize social-desirability bias in the self-report items, the instrument was disguised as a general “social marketing” survey. Items relating to science interest were thereby camouflaged by being seeded in large blocks of “personal interest” items relating to sports, finance, politics, popular entertainment, and other issues. This format reduced the risk that subjects would discern that the goal was to assess their enjoyment of science.
  • They externally validated the resulting instrument. In separate studies, they assessed the power of our Science Curiosity Scale (SCS) to predict engagement with science and nonscience films. Such engagement, moreover, was measured not solely with self-report items but with objective indicators such as viewing time and post-viewing information search.

Science curiosity ought to be have some relationship to science comprehension. It is difficult to experience the pleasure of contemplating scientific insight if one has no capacity for making sense of scientific evidence. Nevertheless, the authors warn that the two dispositions shouldn’t be viewed as one and the same. Many people who can detect covariance and successfully compute conditional probabilities—analytical tasks essential to making sense of empirical evidence—are nevertheless uninterested in science for its own sake. More importantly still, many people who are only modestly proficient in these technical aspects of assessing empirical evidence are interested in science. In sum, one would expect a science-curiosity measure, if valid, to be modestly correlated with but definitely not equivalent to a valid science comprehension measure.

SCS has these properties. The association be-tween SCS and the Ordinary Science Intelligence (OSI) assessment was r = 0.26 in our two data collections.  This is a degree of association consistent with the expectation that higher science curiosity contributes materially to higher science comprehension. Nevertheless, in both studies science comprehension lacked meaningful predictive power.

If reflective of how individuals behave outside the lab, moreover, this result would suggest that individuals higher in science curiosity more readily engage rather than spurn evidence contrary to their predispositions. According to Kahan et. al. higher science curiosity, unlike higher levels of other reasoning dispositions integral to science comprehension, has a uniform rather than a polarizing effect on subjects’ perceptions of risk and like facts—indeed, an effect that at least partially negates the polarizing impact of those other dispositions.   The explanation of the authors is that the intrinsic pleasure that science curious individuals uniquely take in contemplating surprising insights derived by empirical study counteracts the motivation most partisans experience to shun evidence that would defeat their preconceptions. Thus, science curious individuals form a more balanced, and across the political spectrum a more uniform, understanding of the significance of such information on contested societal risks.

If science curiosity does negate politically biased reasoning, how does it work? Cognitive dualism refers to the tendency of individuals to adapt information processing to multiple ends. Farmers, for example, have been observed to use information on climate change to form identity-congruent beliefs when they are behaving as citizens but to form truth-convergent ones when they are engaging in the task of farming, where they have an end—succeeding as farmers—that can be satisfied only with that form of information processing.

Kahan et. al. conjecture that something like this happens with science curious individuals. They have a reason to engage information for truth-seeking that those who are low in science curiosity don’t have: to experience the pleasure of contemplating surprising insights into how the world works. Even if they are no less committed to experiencing the goods associated with holding a particular political identity, the cumulative effect of exercising their reason for this non-political end in contexts in which satisfying it poses no conflict with their identity might create a spillover effect that moderates their beliefs about highly contested matters of policy-relevant fact.

The paper supports this in two ways:

  • First, it presented observational data demonstrating that as science curiosity increases, subjects do not polarize in their assessments of climate change risks but rather uniformly adjust their assessments of them. This is a dramatic departure from “motivated system 2 reasoning,” which involves the magnification of polarization conditional on higher scientific reasoning proficiency.
  • Second, the experimental data showed that subjects high in science curiosity display a marked preference for surprising information—that is, information contrary to their expectations about the current state of the best available evidence—even when that evidence disappoints rather than gratifies their political predispositions.

Thus, according to these results, the curious react more open mindedly, and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.

I believe that this paper could be important, but I must say that Kahan’s continued reliance on Kahneman’s  System 1 and System 2 is disappointing. Parallel Constraint Satisfaction theory suggests that intuition makes the decisions while the intentional analytic system goes out for more information. That to me is the definition of curiosity. If you are curious your threshold to go out for more information is lower.

“Curiosity and Political Information”, Dan M. Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a preprint in Advances in Pol. Psychology.


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