Like-Minded Discussion and Attitude Extremity about Science

Several colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have a new study out that shows not surprisingly that like-minded conversations drive attitude extremity relative to science policy.

Analyzing data from a national panel survey conducted between 2002 and 2005, graduate student Andrew Binder and his collaborators find that after controlling for demographics and news use, like-minded discussion pushed respondents' position on stem cell research to the extreme ends of the distribution, either towards strong support or strong opposition.

The study comes out of the research group at Wisconsin headed up by Profs. Dietram Scheufele and Dominique Brossard. The findings are in line with several studies Scheufele and collaborators have published on the consequences of like-minded discussion for civic engagement. (Full disclosure: I have collaborated with Scheufele on several of these studies.)

So why should we care about attitude extremity? In other words, what might be the civic consequences of ever more deeply committed and intense opinions on issues such as stem cell research, evolution, and climate change? Moreover, what happens in a society where there are more and more like-minded discussions about science policy, whether via popular blogs such as Pharyngula or talk radio shows such as Rush Limbaugh?

a) First, we know from past research that opinion intensity is one of the strongest predictors of participation in science policy debates, promoting contacts with elected officials as well as willingness to turn out to deliberative forums on topics such as stem cell research.

So if like-minded conversations are driving attitude intensity, the voices that will be heard on issues such as stem cell research or evolution are more and more likely to be the extreme tail ends of the continuum of views, ranging from the committed secular liberal to the committed social conservative.

b) Another possibility is a loss of the ability to reach compromise and consensus on science policy. We saw this in reaction to the recent NIH decision on funding for embryonic stem cell research, where social conservatives decried any additional funding while committed stem cell advocates decried any limitations short of those applied to human cloning research.

c) A third possibility is a reinforcing cycle of selectivity in information seeking and news consumption. Like minded conversations on the left and the right reinforce ideology which additionally shape media choices, which further reinforce these like-minded conversations and propel more extreme positions relative to science policy.

d) Attitude extremity and the connection to like-minded conversations about science policy is also likely to continue to fuel belief in a hostile media, a finding that has been shown in previous studies of politics generally. On evolution, for example, social conservatives decry the influence of the liberal press whereas hardliner atheists bemoan a media that is "soft on religion" and promotes "accommodation."

Or on climate change, conservatives will increasingly believe that the media is exaggerating the problem while the most committed liberals such as Joe Romm will cannibalize even the best among the journalistic corp such Andrew Revkin for engaging in "false balance."

So what to do about these social trends and human tendencies? What's clear is that we need to start to think systematically about structuring political interactions and media availability around a plurality of ideas. In short, we need more "cross talk" about science that goes beyond the common perspectives from advocates on either side of a science policy debate.

This can take the form of additional investment in deliberative forums, science cafes, and other forms of dialogue that do a better job of going beyond an activist or science enthusiast turn out. On stage and at the table in these discussions should be more than just scientists, but should include a range of views from the left and the right, the secular and the religious.

It can also take the form of new interactive forms of science journalism and media that sponsor and structure a diversity of views or at least a middle ground perspective. One example recently launched is the Biologos project by Francis Collins that examines the relationship between science and religion. You can disagree with the philosophical position of the site or debate its support from the Templeton Foundation, but this middle ground view is desperately needed online where the discussion is currently dominated by an echo-chamber of social conservatives in one sector and atheist literalists in the other.

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