Yale law professor surprised to discover that tea party supporters know something about science, too

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Yale law professor Dan Kahan analyzed levels of scientific comprehension of various political groups and found that tea party supporters are slightly more scientifically literate than non-tea party people.

Kahan, who admits to not actually knowing a single Tea Party supporter, was surprised.

After all, his hypothesis had told him otherwise, and — without having ever met a tea party supporter in real, live person — he just figured there’d be a “modest negative correlation” between tea party identification and science comprehension. In other words, he assumed, to be a tea party supporter, one would naturally be a scientifically handicapped Luddite.

Kahan used the industry standards as measures for science literacy — 11 items from the National Science Foundation’s “Science Indicators” battery, and 10 items from the Cognitive Reflection test, considered the best measure of the disposition to engage in “conscious, effortful information processing as opposed to intuitive, heuristic processing.”

It turns out that tea party supporters are equal to or exceed other in science literacy.  Oops.

Kahan reacted: “I’ve got to confess, though, I found this result surprising. As I pushed the button to run the analysis on my computer, 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). I’m a little embarrassed, but mainly I’m just glad that I no longer hold this particular mistaken view.”

It could have been a learning moment for Kahan to discover that giving a little more credibility to points of view different from his own might be a good thing. Or, at least, to give a little more credibility to the intellect behind those opposing views. 

No such luck. Kahan continued: “Of course, I still subscribe to my various political and moral assessments–all very negative– of what I understand the “Tea Party movement” to stand for.”

Translation, “They may be okay at science, but they’re still terrible people.”

Those on the left side of the political spectrum hold no monopoly over the dead end that is unflinching political myopia.

How do we as Americans point fingers toward Washington, D.C., at a polarized Congress for failure to solve national crises when large groups of us can’t bring ourselves to attempt to understand, listen to, meet, or, (gasp!), befriend our own neighbors?

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy researcher, political consultant, and mother to three daughters. She can be reached at karen@cyphersgroup.com.