It's no secret that Americans are polarized when it comes to politics, or that people gravitate to information that supports the views they already hold.
Is there a way to bridge this divide?
Researchers at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center may have found one wedge group with more open minds: people who are curious about science.
The new finding stemmed from a project to increase public interest in science documentaries. In the process, the team found that people with a strong desire to seek out science information for fun were less polarized than less curious peers. The trait did not make the views of conservatives and liberals converge on controversial topics such as global warming and fracking, but it did make conservatives more open to the liberal point of view.
Meanwhile, people were actually more divided on the topics the higher they scored on a measure of science knowledge and rational thinking, said Dan M. Kahan, a Yale law and psychology professor who led the research team while he was a visiting scholar at Annenberg. The new work adds more support to the belief that people "use their science proficiency to form ideologically congenial beliefs," Kahan said. Knowledge and curiosity, he said, are not the same thing.
The study, published last week in the journal Advances in Political Psychology, was funded by the Annenberg center, and the team included Annenberg researchers. It analyzed the mindsets of 5,500 people, but did not attempt to quantify what percentage of the total population might be considered scientifically curious or good at scientific reasoning. There were not big differences in the measures between conservatives and liberals, Kahan said.
But he said that someone who believes in human-caused global warming is twice as likely to score in the top 10 percent for science curiosity than someone who does not. Previous analyses have found that those who score high for science curiosity are somewhat more likely to be men, to score well in science comprehension, to be left-leaning, and to be less religious than others.
The science-curious were more likely than others to leave their political echo chamber. When given the choice of reading an article that affirmed their expected beliefs or one that did not, science-curious Republicans and Democrats were considerably more likely to choose the surprising article than were their less curious counterparts.
The researchers acknowledged that it is not easy to make more people curious, but Kahan says he thinks there are political implications. He guesses that people who are curious about science are also curious about other things. People who are more open-minded can be influential when they talk with others in their community. "The primary influence on people's opinions on things like climate change is, 'What are people like me saying?'" Kahan said.