STEM Education #2: Politics Trumps Science

(Last Updated On: May 23, 2014)

STEM Education Math Girl Scout 200pxScience Fact. STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math – can only take us so far when it comes up against politics. Part 1 of this post described the career opportunities and general technical literacy that make STEM education an important part of every curriculum. This Part 2 describes research that shows the limitations of STEM education.

Scientific consensus never reaches a final conclusion because science is by nature subject to change as new data is developed. Nevertheless at any given time science has a general consensus on a great many issues. So why is the consensus of scientists, on a subject they spend their entire lives studying, so unconvincing to the general public?

The limitations of science and of STEM education in shaping public opinion are dramatically shown by a brilliant collection of studies. On a number of these, the lead author is Prof. Dan Kahan, who is based at Yale Law School and also works with the Harvard Safra Center for Ethics. Kahan overflows over with good ideas, and this post draws heavily from his published articles.

An example from a 2013 study will give the general idea. Many people believe that if Americans had a better grounding in science and math they would embrace the scientific consensus rather than take positions diametrically opposed to the known facts. The researchers decided to test whether this is true.

The scientists hired a national polling firm to administer three tests to 1,111 U.S. adults whose gender, political persuasion, geographical distribution and race approximately match the U.S. population. Here are the first two tests:
1. One test measures political orientation, such as right versus left, or conservative versus liberal.
2. Another test measures “Numeracy” (numerical skill): the ability to look at scientific results on a wide range of world problems and draw an accurate conclusion from them.

The left-leaning group and the right-leaning group each included people with a full range of Numeracy abilities ranging from total incompetence to very high analytical skill.

Each person was then given one more test, designed to tell whether his or her personal politics got in the way of coming up with the correct answer. This is where the experimental design gets quite clever.

Consider the following test: the subject (the person being tested) is told about a new skin cream that is being tested and is shown the following results:

STEM education numeracy A

(This figure and the following ones are adapted from Kahan et al, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government)

The subject is asked which of these conclusions is implied by the data?
– People who used the skin cream were more likely to get better than those who didn’t; OR
– People who used the skin cream were more likely to get worse than those who don’t.

The data is totally fictitious, and has been chosen to make it difficult to come up with the right answer. When most people quickly glance at the table, they tend to either look at the top two numbers, or the two numbers on the left. The top two numbers show that more people got worse than better; the left-hand numbers show that for people whose rash got worse, most of them were using the skin cream. Both of these quick-and-dirty ways conclude that the skin cream makes the rash worse.

However, notice what happens when we calculate the percentages going across:

STEM education numeracy A+

Among the people using the skin cream, 34% got better; and among people not using it, only 20% got better. So in fact the skin cream helps, but you can’t come to that (correct) conclusion without thinking about it and then dividing some numbers.

A random selection of one-fourth of the people tested were given the test above. Another random one-fourth were given the same problem but the following opposite data:

STEM education numeracy B

The column headings have been reversed! So naturally the correct answer is also reversed.

Not surprisingly, the people with a high Numeracy score tended to get the right answer whether they were given test A or test B, and the people with low Numeracy tended to get the wrong answer.

You may be saying, that’s only half the test subjects, and that’s also not a very interesting test. OK, but here’s the test that was given to another one-quarter of the group: they were told that a city was trying to decide whether to pass a gun control ordinance, so they were looking at data from other cities who either did or did not pass a similar ordinance. And here was the data the city was studying:

STEM education numeracy C

You’ll notice a certain similarity between this data and the skin test data: as pointed out, both are fictitious.

The test subject was then asked which of these conclusions is implied by the data?
– Cities that enacted a ban on carrying concealed handguns were more likely to have a decrease in crime; OR
– Cities that enacted a ban on carrying concealed handguns were more likely to have an increase in crime.

The remaining one-fourth of the test subjects were asked the same question but given the opposite set of data:

STEM education numeracy D

The data set C implies a decrease in crime following regulation, while data set D implies an increase.

Thus a full spectrum of Americans of every political persuasion and numerical literacy were asked both “innocent” questions and questions that carry with them a lot of political baggage.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that the “innocent” questions about a skin rash lured the less numerical folks into giving the wrong answer, but the more numerical people usually came up with the correct answer. However, the results were quite different when the question was posed as a gun control issue:
– 1. The less numerically talented folks gave conclusions that matched their political stance: they looked at the data and saw confirmation of the answer that they already believed was correct. Thus their answers were polarized by their politics. This was true for both left-leaning and right-leaning subjects! (A separate study showed that both conservatives and liberals exhibited “closed minds” about topics that didn’t fit their politics.)
– 2. The people who showed good numerical skills when looking at non-political issues were however not able to put aside their political views; in fact, they were more polarized than their less mathematical peers. Numerically literate people actually used their analytical talent to reinforce their existing political opinions rather than to look for objective truth.

Here’s how the researchers summarized what they found:

…more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.

This is quite a remarkable result. It refutes the notion that a better understanding of science would cause Americans to adopt more rational views on sensitive issues. Rather, it shows that political issues, those in which we adopt opinions similar to the people we respect and care about, tend to overwhelm any objective consideration of the facts. It is simply not possible to take a scientific issue that has become politicized and get anyone – on the left OR on the right – to consider it dispassionately. We human beings are simply not wired that way!

The full article describing the work summarized above contains a lot of statistical analysis but it also has much interesting discussion for the non-specialist. Almost as fascinating are the follow-up articles in which the work is interpreted, re-interpreted and re-re-interpreted by people whose own political view colors their understanding of the research. In other words, even the discussion of research about bias is subject to bias in interpretation!

Science Speculation: Do these results mean that science is useless in addressing the major problems that the world faces? Let’s define some subsets of problems to see how we can overcome this dilemma in public policy. Differently stated, we’ll nibble away at this question from several sides:

– Safe Topics. As the researchers point out, very few research questions ever become a symbol of group identity. They give examples of areas where there are disagreements and a need for scientific studies, but only a tiny minority of people feel passionately about them: antibiotics to treat infections; health risk of cell phone radiation; government’s role in fire and police protection; the use of government-issued currency rather than barter and precious metals. So science can tackle and overcome many human problems without being totally stymied by politics.

– Re-Framing. Some issues need re-framing to permit rational discussion. For example, the phrase “rationing health care” provokes an emotional and mostly negative response. However, considering “how to allocate doctors and hospital beds to best save lives” is easier to consider for many people. Because of re-framing, the focus has become positive (“save lives”) rather than negative (“take money away from something praiseworthy, perhaps to spend it on something I oppose”).

– Win-Win Linkage. Another Kahan study finds value in what he calls “two-channel” communication and what I would call “linkage” or “win-win.” The researchers chose a controversial scientific question whose dire evidence tends to persuade Democrats (climate change). They paired it with a discussion of geoengineering, which addresses climate change not by suggesting government limitations on emissions, but by proposing ways to capture carbon on a large scale. The presentation of a solution that requires independence and entrepreneurship, values that appeal to Republicans, helped neutralize the polarizing nature of the climate question so that both left- and right-leaning subjects could consider the science more objectively. Thus by making sure that the discussion affirmed both conservative and liberal values, people became less polarized and were better able to consider the scientific facts on both sides of the question. Both conservatives and liberals adjusted their positions, moving a bit toward the center.

– Anticipation. Scientists would be well advised to plan ahead when they address issues that potentially affect large numbers of people and strong economic interests. If a problem is likely to become a political rallying point, soon scientific results will become ignored or mis-interpreted; in fact, the scientists themselves will become biased. So people who want to tackle social problems would be best advised to enlist both conservatives and liberals in its solution, re-affirming both sets of values as they proceed, to try to keep the issue from becoming a political football.

– Humility. Most importantly, scientists need to be humble about what they bring to the party. Facts, analysis and the confirmation of hypotheses may be totally convincing to scientists. However, what scientists believe amounts to nothing very special in the eyes of the public. A scientific conclusion is simply one more piece of information to consider – and not the most important one, either! – when a person develops a personal opinion on a subject of broad social concern.

Is STEM education futile when confronting controversial subjects? Almost everyone occasionally cherry-picks facts to support his personal views – have you ever noticed yourself doing that?

Drawing Credit: Scout, on


STEM Education #2: Politics Trumps Science — 7 Comments

  1. The following comment was submitted by reader LR on 10/22/15. Since the comment box closes after 30 days, I’m posting it on their behalf.
    You wrote:
    “This is quite a remarkable result. It refutes the notion that a better understanding of science would cause Americans to adopt more rational views on sensitive issues. Rather, it shows that political issues, those in which we adopt opinions similar to the people we respect and care about, tend to overwhelm any objective consideration of the facts. It is simply not possible to take a scientific issue that has become politicized and get anyone – on the left OR on the right – to consider it dispassionately. We human beings are simply not wired that way!”

    I think your conclusion isn’t necessarily supported by the data you present, though my intuition says you’re probably right, or at least more right than wrong. But I don’t “know” that. I think a lot depends on how science is taught. If it’s presented as a series of dreary facts to be memorized, I’d expect your assertion would be correct. If there was more emphasis on good lab technique and ways to avoid bias, it’s possible that people would be more dispassionate than they are now. Maybe throw in a bit of history of science and show some fallacious theories that were not supported by the data, but for other reasons.

    I think we need more skeptics. Maybe it’s easy for me because I tend to be a little alienated. I give money, sometimes, to one party, but I have to hold my nose because a lot of their propaganda seems to be based on group identity and demonizing the opposition. I strive to be reality based, but often that means I don’t have enough information to form an opinion with any confidence. I’m guessing most people don’t, but I suppose for a lot of them, it’s not an obstacle.

    • Hi LR, and thanks for your comments.

      I agree with you that it should be possible to teach a healthy skepticism that can help individuals overcome their own conscious and unconscious biases. And I would never oppose a better quality of science education.

      My “science speculation” section did not consider improving the educational process; instead, I took biased thinking as a given, and asked how to frame the discussion to counter built-in biases. I would grant that correcting the problem at the source – if it is possible – would be a great step forward, and would make the work-arounds I discussed less necessary. Let’s hear it for healthy skepticism!

  2. I received an e-mail from Susan Hackwood, Executive Director of the California Council of Science and Technology, mentioning their Fellows program, in which scientists and M.D.s are placed in staff positions at the State Legislature. It’s similar to the Congressional Fellows program in Washington DC run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I’ve always been impressed at the effectiveness of these programs and think they belong on the above list of ways for science to help address major social problems. Therefore, let me add a 6th one:
    – Outreach. Programs such as those run by AAAS and CCST, in which scientists are embedded in legislative and government offices as staff advisors, can not only bring scientific smarts to bear on problems by positioning scientists as “insiders,” but can also help scientists themselves learn how best to make science relevant, socially aware and well-communicated.

  3. These are fascinating studies which seem to bear out my suspicions on the same sort of subject as follows. Personal ambition, the need to succeed driven presumably by the basic instinct of survival of the fittest too often stands in the way of progress in Science or just general increase in understanding phenomena. So many major reputations seem to be made by one particular break through in understanding which the proponent thereof then publicises as much as possible to gain whatever material advantage and prominence that can be wrought thereby, and in doing so stands a good chance of overdoing the new concept’s significance, to the possible exclusion of any new and different variations. This can lead to over specialisation in narrow fields which a few decades later can be seen to be unsoundly based, although at the time of conception were novel and striking enough to be exciting. String theory comes to mind, Freud’s creation and version of psychoanalysis, and as far as I am concerned, the whole basis of physics based of a few fundamental constants whose existence has been little challenged but might have to be seen to be variable in order to explain the anomalies of dark matter and dark energy which appear to be baffling the established body of academic expert science.

    It seems to me that very often the major breakthroughs in science were made by remarkably unassertive individuals, who appeared almost apprehensive about the reception of their results: Dirac, Planck, Copernicus, Alfred Wallace and Darwin both, and Mendel spring to mind, and probably Einstein although Newton, Leibniz or Galileo hardly qualified as humble. Many of the above also did their best work away from the then current accepted path to academic success, and that this this was due to their being driven more by curiosity than the urge to succeed and make an impression on their peers, regardless of possible prejudice and possible damage it might do to their careers and future livelihood.

    • Nick, I agree that scientists are not immune to shameless self-promotion, and if they are perceived to be so driven, they are even LESS likely to be listened to! Your examples are well-chosen and certainly cogent. However, it’s interesting to speculate as to whether Newton and some of the other “pushy” ones would have had much influence if they had been shy and retiring. Having an impact on the thinking of others requires worthwhile substance to be sure, but in addition may require luck and/or braggadocio.

  4. You leave out one of the pernicious elements in our society … the interests of huge multi-national corporations whose well-being is often affected negatively by some scientific issue. Anything that has the potential of lessening their profits or global reach is viewed as a threat, and dealt with accordingly. They are masters of political “spin” that can be used to further their own ends, and as part of their strategy they have a strong impact (by funding selected candidates) on who is currently in power in government. Once a large corporation has determined that some particular issue can be handled in ways that will not be in their best interests, they quickly and effectively move to mobilize not only voters but also those in government to be opposed to anything that does not suit their interests.

    Scientists have no equivalent method of putting their research or their issues in front of the people in time for them to listen (i.e., before they have already adopted a position by virtue of the groups they belong to which influence their thinking). Part of the problem is that topics in science are notoriously hard to deal with, even for experts in the field, and another is that it takes time to consider the complex issues involved. The average person who is not comfortable or familiar with technical issues only has time for a sound-bite from someone they trust … and that’s never a scientifically-based group. Reaching a consensus in scientific communities is hard enough, but even when it occurs it will tend to occur too late to influence most people because the powers-that-be will have already decided how they want the voters to behave, and will be hard at work influencing them before the scientific consensus is ever reached.

    What would have been interesting with respect to these studies would have been a study of self-declared “moderates” or “independents” … whether they show more rational thinking when presented with polarizing issues than those with a pre-polarized political affiliation. Another study could have done with respect to people with a strong scientific background, to see if their education or vocational interest better insulates them from polarized thinking when dealing with subjects outside their own field.

    Unfortunately, I think it is part of the human condition that “facts” are weighed much less than group-think when it comes to taking a position on real-world issues, particularly if they are not simple issues. Once it gets outside a person’s ability to rationally address an issue by weighing all known factors, I think it comes down to trust, as in who-do-you-trust-most. Generally speaking, scientists are not trusted above one’s friends, religious advisers, employers, political parties, or favorite TV station (Fox News, etc).

    • Charles, corporate financial interests are certainly a distorting factor, and since our courts have decreed that corporations have all the freedoms of an individual, it seems very difficult to curb that. Economic interest means money, and money means that spin can be very effective.
      I agree that studies of self-identified independents, or people who actually measure as independent, would be informative. Studies of trained scientists could also be instructive, although if they perform similarly to the “high numeracy” subjects in Kahan’s study, they would not turn out to be very objective on polarizing issues.
      One of Kahan’s articles discusses the fact that adopting opinions similar to one’s chosen group is a rational strategy for the individual; but it’s unfortunate that what’s best for the individual may be destructive for the society.