Yale prof: Tea Partiers know more science than you think

Yale professor Dan Kahan says he is embarrassed that he assumed those who avow to being Tea Party members would have the weakest grasp of science.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read
Science buffs? EuroNews/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Prejudice, like beauty, comes in many forms.

The assumption is that if you hold a particular opinion, it follows that you must hold a particular other opinion. If you don't, goes the argument, then you must be stupid.

It's a little like those who believe that a smartphone is its specs, therefore you can't possibly want to buy an iPhone.

Such logical thought-extension can sometimes pollute science. There are fears that researchers try to find evidence that satisfies their own assumptions.

Some might find it marginally heartening, then, that one researcher, Dan Kahan, admitted to his prejudices being slapped on the behind by actual results.

Writing on the Yale Cultural Cognition Project blog, Kahan described his analysis of research into possible correlations between religious or political beliefs and grasp of science.

When it came to strongly stated religious adherence, his conclusion was that there was a small negative correlation between it and science literacy.

He concluded: "I frankly don't think that that's a very big deal. There are plenty of highly religious folks who have a high science comprehension score, and plenty of secular ones who don't."

However, his eyebrows were lifted by an examination of scientific knowledge and politics.

He had expected that those with the poorest hold on scientific knowledge would be members of the Tea Party.

Some might imagine that this was along the "I disagree with you most strongly, ergo you must be most stupid" axis.

What the numbers told him -- and he declared them statistically significant -- was that those who professed to be Tea Party members had a positive correlation with scientific smarts.

Those who described themselves as merely Republicans had a negative correlation. The correlations were not large, but they were there.

I can feel people of many political angles already picking up their chairs in order to toss them at the screen. Please hold on.

Kahan insisted that those of a more leftward political bias had the highest positive correlation.

But he made an important admission:

I fully expected I'd be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension. But then again, I don't know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party. All my impressions come from watching cable TV -- & I don't watch Fox News very often -- and reading the "paper" (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused Internet sites like Huffington Post & Politico).

He described himself as "a little embarrassed."

It's far more fun to know people with different view than sticking only to those who hold our own.

Unlike Kahan, I do know some Tea Party types and, guffaw if you must, but they are among the most intelligent people I know.

Our discussions, whether about politics, family or even sports, are often enormously entertaining, because we start from the basis that we like each other as human beings.

Prejudices are inevitable. Political beliefs are just that -- beliefs.

You can give any human being the most complete set of supposed facts and they will still choose a different conclusion from the one you believe is inevitable. Because they're human.

I was moved recently to read that The Human Brain Project intends to build the world's fastest computer that "works like a human brain."

In which case this will be the world's first utterly irrational computer, one that holds apparent opposites to be true and one that sees the world according to peculiar and often unknown impressions.

In Kahan's case, how many researchers might have tried to talk their way out of the results he obtained?

He freely admits that he still thinks the Tea Party is several leaves short of a bag. But that's a little different from deciding someone is obviously stupid.