The Psychology of Science Politicization

By Chris Mooney | September 24, 2010 10:05 am

I’ve been meaning to blog about this recent study, which examines why it is that people think they have science on their side (much as they often think they have God on their side).

It’s fascinating: according to new work by Dan Kahan of Yale, Hank Jenkins-Smith of the University of Oklahoma, and Donald Braman of George Washington, people think that scientific consensus aligns with their values. In other words, they think scientists are credible experts if they believe what they believe–even when they believe completely absurd things (i.e., that global warming isn’t happening).

From a summary of the work:

Subjects were much more likely to see a scientist with elite credentials as an “expert” when he or she took a position that matched the subjects’ own cultural values on risks of nuclear waste disposal and laws permitting citizens to carry concealed guns in public.

“These are all matters,” Kahan said, “on which the National Academy of Sciences has issued ‘expert consensus’ reports.” Using the reports as a benchmark,” Kahan explained that “no cultural group in our study was more likely than any other to be ‘getting it right’,” i.e. correctly identifying scientific consensus on these issues. They were all just as likely to report that ‘most’ scientists favor the position rejected by the National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report if the report reached a conclusion contrary to their own cultural predispositions.”

No wonder climate deniers and anti-evolutionists put out those long, misleading lists of all the scientists who allegedly support their views.

This study also underscores a critically important role for the science journalist (a career that’s now dying, as we just wrote in the latest Best American Science Writing 2010). Science journalists are ideally equipped to explain to the public where scientific consensus actually lies, as opposed to where it is falsely claimed to lie.

We survey the work of the National Academies and other outlets. We interview the experts. We often read the studies ourselves. And thus we serve as a needed antidote to this confirmation bias with regard to where expertise lies.

And there are fewer and fewer of us.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics and Science

Comments (33)

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  1. ChH

    You’ve improperly conflated credibility and consensus – unless you really believe the consensus is always correct.

    It’s fortunate that you’re a SCIENCE JOURNALIST rather than an inferior human like the ones tested in this study – otherwise you might be susceptable to uncritically agreeing with scientists who take positions you already hold.

  2. Nullius in Verba

    “people think that scientific consensus aligns with their values.”

    That’s really curious. Because while I know a lot of sceptics who think they have science on their side, I know of very few, if any, who think they have a “scientific consensus” on their side. In fact, most sceptics regard the two concepts as being polar opposites (one being a mixture of arguments from authority and ad populam) and pride themselves on not being so unscientific as to use the argument.

    The lists are simply to demonstrate that the consensus is not as overwhelming as is sometimes claimed – not that it would make any scientific difference if it were.

    But I’m interested to note that “no cultural group” studied was any better than any other. We’re all equal in this regard, apparently. Would you agree?

  3. Don’t ring the hero bell for science journalists so quickly. Don’t assume you’d be the antidote. I think it’s an obvious extension of this finding that people would credit or discredit journalists based on their value systems, too. You or any other science writer calling out the consensus is not going to be much more convincing to the opposition than the actual scientists are. Especially when you add in the public’s trust in journalists . . .

    That’s depressing.

  4. To me, it seems that the best test for this is whether your views shift as you read more science literature. I for instance have changed my stance on many environmental issues drastically in response to new articles and studies, I like to think that means I’m doing it right, but I guess in light of this, I wouldn’t really know.

  5. Oh, and Chris, don’t let the commenters give you too hard of a time, you do make an excellent case for why this would necessitate more and better science journalism.

  6. Anthony McCarthy

    Looking at some of those climate change denier scientists, one of the problems is that too many people, including many scientists, don’t realize that, outside of their specialty, scientists shouldn’t be assumed to have any more expertise than any random person on the street.

    Several things that always are a red flag of unreliability are:

    1. If they get paid by someone with an interest in the issue,
    2. If they have an ideological predisposition, as opposed to a relevant previous record, which biases their ideas,
    3, If they give opinions as opposed to presenting conclusions about data,
    4. If they are arrogant

    That pretty much cuts out most of the people you’ll see on TV or hear on the radio. They don’t usually ask the right people because the right people won’t give the answers their advertisers and owners want their audience to hear.

  7. ChH

    Anthony, does a climate scientist producing results supporting additional government controls, and getting paid by that government for that work count as “they get paid by someone with an interest in the issue”?

  8. Nullius in Verba

    Rhacodactylus #4,

    You can never know for sure, but it’s a good sign.


    More and better science journalism is indeed needed – but science journalism does not consist in reporting the consensus, it consists in impartially reporting the evidence.

    Science journalists have to guide readers through the reasoning, point out examples of good scientific method as well as potential fallacies, fill in background that a newcomer to the area wouldn’t know, to bridge the gap between the technical literature and the non-specialists. They have to apply scientific scepticism and critical thinking for those who do not know how to do it themselves, and in the process teach it by example.

    Joe at #3 was right. People judge the credibility/authority of journalists too, and there is no reason to think they will be any more convincing or credible than the scientists. Argument from Authority involves an infinite logical regression – how do you decide who is an Authority? Do you ask an authority on Authorities which of them has the greater authority? But then how do you decide who is a proper ‘Authority’ authority? And so on.

    This post tries to set up science journalists as ‘Scientific Authority’ authorities, but there are science journalists on both sides of this debate. (And of course bloggers can do science journalism, too.) So which ones do we listen to?

    You need something a bit better to distinguish good information from bad, and I propose the scientific method as a candidate. Science journalists can contribute by teaching it, promoting it, explaining why it’s better. And using it, of course.

    Anthony #6,

    Everybody has an interest in the issue. It will affect everyone, one way or the other.

  9. For quite some time now, we have had your site on our blogroll, encouraging our readers to visit your site. Our target audience is high school seniors and college students. We engage them in conversations with the goal of appreciating that there are more than 2 or 3 ways to view any issue; there are at least 27.

    Hopefully, the discussions in which we engage will better prepare them to make decisions as they navigate their college years. We believe that when people recognize that there are many different ways to view an issue, they also can devise more options to address difficulties.

    It’s sort of like having more arrows in one’s quiver. Come check us out.

  10. Since newspapers have overwhelmingly pushed the claim that we are experiencing catastrophic global warming for many years despite the total lack of evidence that we are it is clear journalists have behaved with a total lack of honesty. I disagree that “science” journalists, whose degrees are far more likely tom be in English than any science subject, are wholly unsuited to “informing” the public. At least if truthful information is the desire. Fortunately for most journalists the truth is rarely a primary consideration for their masters.

  11. Sean McCorkle


    I’m almost entirely in agreement with you on the above, especially the need for constant reinforcement of the scientific method and the nature of science, to try to raise public understanding of the provisional nature of scientific knowledge. There are other benefits of this as well; scientific thinking is quite useful in daily life for the average person (Robert Pirsig makes an excellent case for this in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” as does Carl Sagan in “The Demon-Haunted World”)

    I would add, while you correctly point out that argument from authority is a logical fallacy, psychologist Robert Cialdini writes that “authority reasoning” is used by most people, even the intelligent and skeptical, at some level as a shortcut or time-saver in daily decision-making. One of his examples in Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion is the act of looking for a seal of approval by the American Dental Association on a brand of toothpaste, rather than spending a lot of time researching the ins and outs of toothpastes.

    The issue of lack of time needed to understand an incredibly large body of knowledge seems to come up more and more. For example, molecular biologists are very evidence-oriented and must spend long hours studying countless papers describing experiments attempting to isolate interactions from complex systems. If you do a PubMed search for the tumor suppressor p53, you’ll find in excess of 55 thousand papers published since the molecules discovery in 1979, which works out to more than 3 papers per day being published (on average – its been increasing). Its difficult to see how that incredibly huge and complex body of intertwined evidence can be presented, in summary much less in toto, to the public when the specialists themselves barely have the time to digest it all. And thats just one molecule!

    It may not always be practical, although it would be desirable, for complete evidence trails to be laid out in articles for the layman. While, again, I agree with you that its bad to present the institutes of science as a never-wrong authority, the journalist or communicator has a balancing act between supporting detail on one hand, and time and space restrictions on the other, especially when the topic is a complex system.

  12. Nullius in Verba


    Fully in agreement! (Is that a first?!)

    “[…]that “authority reasoning” is used by most people, even the intelligent and skeptical, at some level as a shortcut or time-saver in daily decision-making.”

    I agree that heuristics and shortcuts are a practical necessity in life. But for that reason I would distinguish scientific judgements from ‘everyday’ judgements, and allow that you can hold ‘everyday’ beliefs for whatever heuristic reasons you choose, but you can’t call them ‘scientific’ unless you follow the method. And you need to understand that heuristics, while useful, can be unreliable.

    There is of course a continuum of degrees of rigour, and it’s obviously not reasonable to demand perfection of anybody in this. But I’d appreciate it if the principle is at least recognised more widely in journalism, and an effort made. Since I believe it to be the source of a lot of the problems with the public understanding of science that are being complained about here, I think it ought to be a positive step from your point of view, too.

  13. Eric the Leaf

    From what I could tell, the linked study does not suggest that the role of the science journalist is to “explain to the public where scientific consensus actually lies” (“The problem won’t be fixed by simply trying to increase trust in scientists or awareness of what scientists believe”), but rather, well,

    “To make sure people form unbiased perceptions of what scientists are discovering, it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments.”

    Seems to me they’re lobbying for magicians, not journalists.

  14. Anon

    A cautionary note. People hold science and scientists in high esteem, and when their beliefs are in conflict with them, resolve this tension, this cognitive dissonance, by misjudging the expertise of individuals. It’s been suggested we more unavoidably educate people about what science and scientists actually say. Note there are two ways this could go. Yes, people might alter their beliefs into greater concord with science. Or, they might come to hold science and scientists in far less esteem. Or both. Which doesn’t seem the outcome being hoped for.

  15. ChrisD

    ChH #7

    does a climate scientist producing results supporting additional government controls, and getting paid by that government for that work count as “they get paid by someone with an interest in the issue”?


    First you have to demonstrate that the government actually has an interest in people believing that the planet is getting hotter and hotter even if it is untrue.

    Conspiracy theories need not apply.

    PS: Incidentally, scientists working on government grants get a pittance. These are the smartest guys in the room. If money were the object, they could get a whole lot more of it doing something else.

  16. Nullius in Verba

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
    H. L. Mencken.

  17. ChH

    ChrisD #17, do you really think people weilding governmental power don’t care whether they are handed an excuse to exercize additional control over their citizens? That’s what it sounds like. It’s not “the government” that has the interest – it is the people who make up the government. And don’t start with “in a democracy we are all the government” because that is a load of BS.

    Note I am NOT challenging the validity of the consensus position in this post – I’m only addressing whether those in government paying for research have an interest in the result.

  18. ChrisD

    ChH #19

    Sorry, I’m not buying it. You’re only offering a vague it’s-all-a-big-governmental-conspiracy-to-control-you theory. One has to buy into that theory before one can say that scientists working on government grants are “getting paid by someone with an interest in the issue.”

    This is completely different from, say, the Western Fuels Association paying consulting fees directly to Soon and Baliunas. No one has to buy into any theories of motivation there. It’s patently obvious. An association representing coal interests directly pays two “skeptical” scientists. How much more blatant can it get? And you think this is comparable to a government providing research grants to universities? Nah.

  19. ChH

    It’s not a conspiracy – it’s human nature. People want to tell other people what to do, but don’t want to be told what to do. It’s not like they get together in a secret cigar-smoke-filled room to coordinate their human natures – people naturally tend to accumulate all the power over other people they can. Why else would the framers of our constitution add the bill of rights, if it was not the tendency of those in power to abuse those rights?
    Look at the history of government – all governments over all history tend to encroach on their citizens rights more and more until they are defeated, thrown off (militarily or by the vote).

  20. ChrisD

    Sorry, but I’m still not buying it.

    It is the explicit purpose of the energy companies to make as much money as possible. It’s acknowledged by everyone. It’s why they exist. If an energy company or an association of energy companies pays a scientist to produce research on matters that affect its profits, or to write about research on matters that affect its profits, that is a clear and obvious problem.

    This is not the case with government. It is not the explicit purpose of government to exert as much control over you and me as possible. The explicit purpose of government is to provide security, services, etc., to its citizens. To say that “controlling everyone” is a basic purpose of every government requires a judgment. It requires you to make an assumption.

    It’s an assumption that I don’t make.

    And here’s another problem: Most of the research supported by government grants is neither pro-AGW or anti-AGW. For example, take a paper that analyzes satellite data and concludes that Greenland is losing X amount of ice annually. The authors don’t attempt to identify the cause, so it’s neither pro AGW nor con AGW; it simply tries to quantify what’s happening in Greenland.

    How does this kind of research–which is most of it–fit into the scheme of “government grants exist to further its attempt to control you”?

    Is it your position that if the analysis concluded that Greenland is gaining ice, the authors would have altered it?

  21. ChH

    Controlling everyone is not the purpose of government – explicit or implicit. It’s just what happens naturally, due to human nature. People in government want more power, and will pay for research that supports that desire. I’m not claiming they or the scientists they pay are purposely falsifying evidence or whatever – just that they have an interest in the result. You keep putting words in my mouth in an attempt to avoid this reality.

  22. Jon

    You see it again and again. Movement conservatives are trying to protect their politics from science, while everyone else who’s paying attention is trying to do the common sense thing: protect science from politics. (It’s so obvious it shouts–if you don’t have good science, how can policy makers make good policy?)

  23. Nullius in Verba


    “It is the explicit purpose of the energy companies to make as much money as possible.”

    Actually, if you read their advertising, it is the explicit purpose of energy companies to provide power to their customers at a very reasonable price. They exist because people want power, and other people are capable of supplying it at a mutually beneficial price.

    The idea that they’re only in it for the money is as cynical as the idea that all politicians seek power, rather than being the paragons of self-sacrifice and public service that we all know them to be.

    Industry pays scientists to answer questions that they want to know the answers to. If they want to influence public opinion, it’s a lot more cost effective to pay an advertising agency. (Like Fenton Communications, to pick an example at not-quite-random. 🙂 ) Scientists do add a certain gloss, but their dishonesty is unreliable, and they’re not widely read by the general public.

    As we keep on pointing out, many climate scientists are being paid by energy companies, too. The CRU for example is supported (amongst others) by British Petroleum, Central Electricity Generating Board, Eastern Electricity, Irish Electricity Supply Board, National Power, Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, Shell, UK Nirex Ltd, and the Sultanate of Oman. You tell me “If an energy company or an association of energy companies pays a scientist to produce research on matters that affect its profits, or to write about research on matters that affect its profits, that is a clear and obvious problem.” Right, well an association of energy companies are paying the scientists who write the IPCC reports. I bet you’re about to move the goalposts, yes? Well, they’re also funded by Greenpeace and the WWF, whose income is also affected by what they write, but in the other direction. Are those goalposts moving again?

    That’s why this sort of argument (called ‘ad hominem’) is known as a fallacy.

    Everybody who has anything to do with seeking funding knows that their are fashions and buzzwords in government priorities, and that they will look much more favourably on applications that involve them. So if you want your project to get funded, you need to find a connection between what you want to do and the latest hot topic, no matter how tenuous or strained. It does actually help, and the pressure on fund-seekers to get results is tremendous. (As has been mentioned previously by commenters on this blog.)

    For example, the scientists want to measure the gravitational undulations of the Earth, and want a really expensive satellite to do it. How can they get the politicians to fund it? Oh, yes, say we can monitor stuff to do with the climate, like sea levels and ice caps. If you want a better shot at funding, you have to connect it to climate change.

    Looked at from the point of view of pure science, knowing precisely what’s happening in Greenland is not that much of a priority (we already know that within the margin of error it’s not changing), and it’s extremely dubious science anyway because it’s a highly variable quantity so we’d need decades worth of data to be able to draw any useful conclusions, and the measurement errors and isostatic effects are larger than the changes being observed.

    If climate were not a buzzword, it probably would not have even been attempted. And if they found that Greenland was gaining ice, they’d have published but not had a major press release and series of interviews with the media to talk about it. It would take a little while before the sceptics found it and passed it around, stored it away, but nobody outside their circle would notice.
    (For example:
    Davis, C.H., Kluever, C.A. and Haines, B.J. 1998. Elevation Change of the Southern Greenland Ice Sheet. Science 279: 2086-2088.
    Says ice thickness growing 2 cm/yr.
    Thomas, R., Akins, T., Csatho, B., Fahnestock, M., Gogineni, P., Kim, C. and Sonntag, J. 2000. Mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet at high elevations. Science 289: 426-428.
    Says mass balance zero within margin of error.
    Krabill, W., Abdalati, W., Frederick, E., Manizade, S., Martin, C., Sonntag, J., Swift, R., Thomas, R., Wright, W. and Yungel, J. 2000. Greenland ice sheet: High-elevation balance and peripheral thinning. Science 289: 428-430.
    Says thickening in north by 14mm/yr, thining in south by 11 mm/yr, net result is thickening by 5 mm/yr, but on correcting for isostatic uplift, this reduces to zero within margin of error.
    McConnell, J.R., Arthern, R.J., Mosley-Thompson, E., Davis, C.H., Bales, R.C., Thomas, R., Burkhart, J.F. and Kyne, J.D. 2000. Changes in Greenland ice sheet elevation attributed primarily to snow accumulation variability. Nature 406: 877-879.
    Says snow rate is highly variable, current trends are well within range of natural variation.
    Johannessen, O.M., Khvorostovsky, K., Miles, M.W. and Bobylev, L.P. 2005. Recent ice-sheet growth in the interior of Greenland. Sciencexpress 20 October 2005.
    Found high-altitude interior growing 6.4 cm/yr but low level margins thinning at 2 cm/yr. Spatially averaged mean is increase of 5.4 cm/yr.
    and so on. I won’t bore you with any more. There are just as many going the other way, of course.)

    Any glaciologist knows that snow accumulates in the vast upland interior plateau, held in place by a ring of mountains, and at the margins it slides down under gravity in rivers of ice. The flow rate depends mostly on how much it snows, and on complicated (and poorly understood) flow dynamics. Temperature has very little effect except at the extreme margins, which constitute only a tiny fraction of the ice mass. Any long-term systematic change will be via changes in precipitation. And the temperature records for Greenland show it was (locally) warmer there in the 1930s anyway.

    So you see, I can’t claim that they wouldn’t publish it if they got the ‘wrong’ answer, but I can claim that you would never get to hear about it. (You hadn’t heard about it, right?)

    And of course researchers who don’t get good publicity for their research, who don’t have a high public profile, are not as favoured for funding. It is a subtle selection effect, that slowly weeds out researchers who don’t fit the narrative. It requires no conspiracy, or even intent – just the natural corrupting influence of petty bureaucracy, confirmation bias, and political fashion.

  24. Brian Too

    @ChrisD & ChH,

    I don’t necessarily see a conflict in your respective views. For scientists working under arms-length granting processes, their research is probably free from bias and pressure from the government ultimately handing out the grant money.

    On the other hand there are scientists who work as regular full-time employees of the government. These people are much more vulnerable to pressure from their employer (note the change in status/terminology).

    Also, it’s not quite correct to say that government is entirely free of ideology just because it is not a for-profit entity. There is plenty of money thrown at politicians from companies who wish to influence government policy. Yes the administrative side of government is a little different from the politicians who run every X years for office but it’s still a politically-aware office environment. Those lobbyists aren’t throwing cash around for charity.

    All you have to do is look at the last few years of published stories of government scientists complaining about their reports and recommendations getting re-written or outright suppressed.

    I cannot characterize the size of the problem, but I know that it’s not a problem-free area.

  25. ChH

    Brian Too – I mostly agree, except the scientists know what the government wants to hear, and will shape their grant proposals and direction of research accordingly.

    A parting shot – “The explicit purpose of government is to provide security, services, etc., to its citizens. To say that “controlling everyone” is a basic purpose of every government requires a judgment.”
    The evidence for this is plain – government control a myriad of minute details about our life. Almost everything we consume, wear, drive, ride, live in must first be approved by gov’t. That’s not a “service” – it’s tyranny that is not the explicit basic purpose of government, and yet here we are.

  26. Jon

    Almost everything we consume, wear, drive, ride, live in must first be approved by gov’t.

    Dammit, I can’t drive down the street without having to stop for a stop sign. Why won’t the government just let me put that battering ram on the front of my car and drive on through?

  27. Matteo

    “No wonder climate deniers and anti-evolutionists put out those long, misleading lists of all the scientists who allegedly support their views.”

    Oh, bloody hell. You don’t realize that you yourself are Exhibit A for the thesis of this post? Are you really that blind to irony?

  28. ChH

    Obviously, Jon, government exists to protect us from each other. What I’m pointing out is the government’s excesses in protecting us from ourselves.

  29. Jon

    ChH: Obviously, Jon, government exists to protect us from each other.

    So obviously, if greenhouse gases are a problem, legislation should be passed so that the rewards for bad behavior are gradually eliminated, and the rewards for helpful behavior are incentivized.

    BTW, Matteo thinks that this list…:

    …Should have the same weight as this list:

    (Keep scrolling down for about five minutes. When you reach “dissenting organizations”, you can stop, because there aren’t any.)

  30. ChH

    Jon – I completely agree & I like how you put that – if a person or company is doing something to the environment that harms other people, it is appropriate for (within the primary purpose of) government to act to disincentivize those actions.

  31. ChrisD

    @Jon 28:

    Dammit, I can’t drive down the street without having to stop for a stop sign. Why won’t the government just let me put that battering ram on the front of my car and drive on through?

    You think that’s bad? Try finding a nice pair of flammable pajamas for your kid. It’s damn near impossible.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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