Can Curiosity Help End Scientific Quackery?

Photo: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Everyone knows curiosity is, generally speaking, a good thing. That’s why attentive teachers and parents work to foster and reinforce curiosity in young children — it’s seen as a trait that will yield dividends across the entire course of one’s lifespan. It could also, according to an intriguing new study, help dig humanity out of a dangerous hole we’re in: the increasing politicization of vital scientific concepts like global warming and evolution.

At Vox, Brian Resnick runs down the study, which was published in Advances in Political Psychology and lead-authored by Dan Kahan, a Yale researcher who is one of the leading voices on questions pertaining to the politicization of science. As Resnick explains, “Kahan and his collaborators — including researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center — weren’t setting out to cure partisan bias, at least not initially.” But they uncovered one possible way to do just that, in the form of an instrument they designed to measure respondents’ levels of scientific curiosity, as opposed to — and this is an important distinction — their levels of scientific knowledge. Someone’s level of scientific knowledge is simply how likely they are to answer factual questions correctly, while their level of curiosity reflects how driven they are to seek out new scientific information.

The researchers found that scientific curiosity “is a trait that follows a bell curve in the population. And highly science-curious people are about evenly distributed across demographic groups and political leanings. So yes, there are ‘scientifically curious’ conservative Republicans out there.” And excitingly, the more scientific curiosity a respondent exhibited, the less likely they were to fall into the trap of politicized scientific thinking.

“Usually, in Kahan’s studies, when people are more engaged in a subject, they’re more partisan about it,” explains Resnick. “And he found that here: Republicans and Democrats who knew a lot about science were polarized on hot-button questions. But that trend went away when he sorted the participants by their ‘science curiosity’ scores instead of their ‘science knowledge’ scores.” So while there was still a partisan gap, the more scientifically curious someone of any ideology was, the more likely they were to have correct beliefs about a variety of factual subjects. The researchers believe that’s because they’re more likely to seek out information that contradicts their views, nudging them toward the right answer rather than into a partisan whirlpool.

Resnick is careful to note that the authors urge caution, given that this is just one paper. But they have more planned, and it’ll be exciting to see what they come up with. “But for now,” writes Resnick, “if there’s a lesson here, it’s that in our political debates, and political process, we could value scientific curiosity more. The public could champion politicians who are curious over politicians who are partisan. A curiosity mindset is what could broker consensus in an increasingly polarized country.” Idealistic? Maybe. But in the era of fake news and PizzaGate, we could use a little idealism — and lots more curiosity.

Can Curiosity Help End Scientific Quackery?