Dan Kahan, psychologist and lawyer

This researcher studies how curiosity—not just knowledge—about science influences public perceptions of highly contested topics. Interview by Teresa L. Carey

May 01, 2017

Dan Kahan. Credit: Annenberg Public Policy Center

Can inquisitiveness about science make the difference between people who accept concepts like evolution and human-made climate change and those who don’t? That’s something Dan Kahan wants to understand.

Kahan, a professor of psychology and law at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, is best known for his research on how people form opinions about scientific discoveries. He says that, more often than not, individuals form beliefs based on their cultural identity. Kahan’s work focuses on areas of science that are connected to especially polarizing debates, such as climate change, the human papillomavirus vaccine, fracking, and nuclear power.

Climate change is Kahan’s premier example of a contentious topic where people are sharply divided. Some believe that climate change is manmade; others believe it is not. This debate has long been settled in the scientific community, yet it is driving people toward extreme contrary opinions.

According to Kahan, people who possess two characteristics best understand scientific concepts: knowledge of science and reasoning ability. However, when it comes to topics of risk—where people must make decisions on issues that could affect their behaviors, such as human-caused climate change, fracking, or vaccines—Kahan’s research has found that those same types of people are the most sharply divided in opinion.

Kahan recently wanted to find out if the tendency for individuals to seek information that supports their cultural beliefs can ever be diminished. To do so, he examined a characteristic he calls “science curiosity.” This trait describes an individual who is interested in science, regardless of how much he or she knows or understands it. He found that people who are curious about science aren’t as divided in their views on strongly debated topics than those who are less curious.

Kahan gave a talk about his work on February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. He explained how people acquire and use scientific information to make decisions. Afterward, he sat down with SciCom’s Teresa Carey to talk about “science curiosity” and its role in shaping personal opinion.

Editor's note: A version of this interview was published in Science.

What is science curiosity?

Science curiosity is a desire to seek out and consume scientific information just for the pleasure of doing so. People who are science-curious do this because they take satisfaction in seeing what science does to resolve mysteries. That is different from somebody who would show interest in scientific information because they had a specific goal, like wanting to do well in school. Science curious people are driven by the pure activity of consuming what science knows.

How did you decide to start researching science curiosity and how it relates to forming opinions about highly contested topics?

We initially noticed that as people were becoming more science curious, they were moving in tandem toward a certain result instead of polarizing the way that they would if we measured ordinary science intelligence, for example.

We conjectured maybe that is because they're more open to contrary evidence. Then we did an experiment to test that. People were given the choice: read a story with new scientific evidence that is consistent with your predisposition on climate change or one that is contrary to it.

The people who were science curious would always go for the new evidence, whether it was consistent or inconsistent with their predispositions.

How do you measure science curiosity?

Researchers have had trouble coming up with good measures for curiosity. We decided to make our measures very specific. We embed questions in what looks like a consumer marketing survey. It’s a composite of different types of questions, such as self-reported opinions, behaviors, and objective measures. For example, one question helps us determine whether you want to read a story about science as opposed to sports, finance, or entertainment. We also have them watch science videos to see how long it takes before they turn them off. We try not to bombard people with questions that all come down to, “Do you like science?" because they know what you're after. With our survey, they can't tell what it is we're after.

"The liberal society, because it’s open and lets people form their own views, is uniquely suited for science."

Can science curiosity help combat misconceptions about climate change and vaccines?

In our research, we’ve seen that with greater curiosity, people are more willing to take new information into account when forming their opinions about the world. I’m not concerned about if they change their mind, but rather if they are thinking better about what the issues are—taking more time to go through the material, not reflexively dismissing the evidence.

In our study we observed this trend by chance when we weren’t looking for it because I just threw this battery of questions into the study. When we got around to looking at it, we saw they’re not polarizing to the same extent. And that’s why we should ask the question: If science-curious individuals get information that’s contrary to their predispositions, are they more reflexive and open to it?

How is science curiosity different from people who are just more knowledgeable about science?

In our study, people who were science-curious would always choose to look at the new evidence, whether it was consistent or inconsistent with their predispositions. If you look at the high science comprehension people who are more science-curious, they’re not nearly as far apart in their viewpoints as their counterparts who are modest in science curiosity. Science curiosity is muting the polarization.

What do you think is the most pressing research topic in your field?

Fake news. I think fake news is like a bad cold. Trump and his “alternative fact” presidency is a cancer on the body politic of enlightened self-government. I think it is urgent; it is a crisis for a liberal society.

We have to understand what it is that makes some issues become the ones that we fight over. I think Trump’s danger is that he creates and adds to the stock of issues that could have the kind of toxic character that makes people polarized. He is the “Science Communication Environment Polluter-in-Chief.” There is nothing worse than society not getting the benefit of the knowledge that liberalism will naturally coax out of science. The open society is essential for the advance of science.

Are science-curious people able to recognize fake news and therefore not believe it?

People really need to study this. I would draw a distinction between fake news and Trump. I think fake news is consumed by people who already have the kind of outlook that one would worry someone might have after reading fake news. People generally don’t look at things that they don’t agree with.

You’ve said, “The liberal society has been such a hospitable host for science.” What did you mean by that?

The liberal society, because it’s open and lets people form their own views, is uniquely suited for science. Not just because in a closed society some bureaucrat might make a mistake or get in the way of science, but because you are instilling in people the kind of character and the kind of independence [that doesn’t] just accept orthodoxy.

What did you mean by a “distinction between fake news and Trump?”

Trump is much different [than fake news] because you can’t ignore what he says.

Because he is the president?

Yes. Not only do you not want to ignore him, you want to fight him. Fighting is the clearest signal that groups might be in a state of contention against each other, and so that's a real dilemma. It’s an object of study for the field, but it also has to be an occasion for action by people who see just how threatening he is to the well-being of our society as one that benefits from science.

How does your work, such as researching science curiosity, influence your life?

It steers me in the direction of certain kinds of collaborations and toward certain kinds of issues. I find it to be interesting, puzzling, and worthwhile for its own sake.

If we can find a way to foster science curiosity and build a stronger community of science-curious people, will that help diminish polarizing opinions? Will people start to come together and agree on things?

The Republican people who are high in science curiosity are still going to have different values from the Democrats who have the same kind of propensity. But they don’t become more polarized as they become more science curious. Instead, they're kind of going in the same direction. Their opinions are moderated to some extent. They should be more open to changing their mind.

I’m more interested in, “Did you consider the new information in an open-minded way? Are you taking it into account? Using it to inform your opinions?” I don't worry, “Have they changed their mind,” but rather, “Are they thinking better about what the issues are?”


© 2017 Teresa L. Carey. Curious readers will find Teresa’s stories at teresacarey.com.