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The Science Literacy Paradox

Why Really Smart People Are Often the Most Biased in Their Opinions

Matthew Nisbet is associate professor of communication at Northeastern University and a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry scientific consultant. From 1997 to 1999, he was public relations director for CSI.

When presented with contradictory evidence about a politically contentious issue, it’s easy to fall into the trap of reacting emotionally and negatively to that information rather than responding with an open mind. We may not only discount or dismiss such evidence, we are also likely to quickly call into question the credibility of the source. “Motivated reasoning,” defined as the “systematic biasing of judgments in favor of one’s immediately accessible beliefs and feelings,” write political psychologists Milton Lodge and Charles Taber (2013), is “. . . built into the basic architecture of information processing mechanisms of the brain” (p. 24).

But here is the surprising paradox: studies show that in politically contentious science debates, it is the best educated and most scientifically literate who are the most prone to motivated reasoning. Researchers differ slightly in their explanations for this paradox, but studies suggest that strong partisans with higher science literacy and education levels tend to be more adept at recognizing and seeking out congenial arguments, are more attuned to what others like them think about the matter, are more likely to react to these cues in ideologically consistent ways, and tend to be more personally skilled at offering arguments to support and reinforce their preexisting positions (Haidt 2012; Kahan 2015).

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