Study: Conservatives And Liberals Assess Scientific Evidence Differently. Here's Why That Matters

Dec 1, 2020
Originally published on November 13, 2020 2:40 pm

When it comes to assessing scientific evidence, conservatives place more value on personal anecdotes, while liberals put more stock into what the experts are saying. Those are among the recent findings by Eureka College's Alexander Swan and his colleagues.


Tim Shelley spoke with him about these studies, and what they could mean as the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic.

TS: Recently, you did a bit of research on the differences between how liberals and conservatives perceive or assess evidence. If you could just talk a little bit about how that worked.

AS: Yes. So over the past two or three years, my collaborator Randy Stein and Michelle Sarraf asked two groups of people to identify their political leanings. And then we asked them to determine the credibility in a scenario.

So for example, we asked participants to read a blurb about the existence of the "hot hand" in gambling or other games of chance. And they read a [fake] excerpt from a researcher saying that the existence of "hot hands" is is disputed, and it doesn't exist.

And that was immediately followed up by a person, in Study One, with relevant experience. So in this case, maybe a casino manager who's directly refuted the researcher's claim. And so we had four scenarios like that.

And then in Study Two, it wasn't a person that had direct relevance of experience to that claim. It was just some commentator or commenter that we said was a previous respondent in the study. 

So in Study One, it was a person with relevant experience. And in Study Two, it was just a random person that didn't have any relevant experience. And we asked participants to rate the credibility of each of the statements.

And what we found was that, among liberals and conservatives, liberals tended to put more credibility and more weight into what the researcher had to say about these four scenarios. And conservatives tended to allow the experiential evidence from this other commenter, or this relevant professional. They gave that more credibility and more weight.

And you can see that across both studies, the effect is stronger among conservatives in Study One with the relevant professional, because I assume it has to do with their taking in the relevant professional experience of this other person. And less so in Study Two, because it's just seems like a random person from their perspective. But in both cases, conservatives tended to give more latitude to the non-scientific perspective.

TS: Let's talk about the reasons behind that. Why would somebody who maybe leans more left place more trust in that researcher, while the conservative might place more trust in the other perspective, the anecdotal perspective?

AS: Right, yeah, that's a very good question. So the idea that we we worked with in this paper and in the piece in the conversation was that this effect seems to be somewhat mediated by conservatives' desire to give more weight to intuition, so intuition as their personal truth.

So if somebody expresses an experiential conclusion, they tend to give more weight to that because it's aligning with their trust and faith in their own intuitions -- and intuitions could be antithetical to what the scientists in any given science topic are saying. We don't we don't really see that trust, massive reliance on intuition in the liberal part of the sample, the people who lean more left in the sample.

TS: If we want to take another example, this I know was in the piece in The Conversation, you mentioned how this same dynamic might be playing out in how the perception of COVID-19 if you could just talk a little bit about that.

AS: Since the beginning of the pandemic, I think it's been pretty clear that there have been two competing narratives going on: one from the scientific community, which is 'this is a pretty terrible pandemic. And it's killing a lot of people. And we should take it seriously.'

And then on the other side, the other narrative, it is, you know, 'COVID, not a big deal. It's just like the flu. You know, we shouldn't shut down the economy or do any of these kinds of things.'

And at the very heart of it was President Trump, getting COVID, stating that, and getting the best health care that this country has to offer, and then coming out and stating that it wasn't that big of a deal, it wasn't a big problem.

And I think that feeds into the narrative of the latter side that I mentioned, where people are going to trust his detailing of it because he's the leader. And they're also going to then use that to fuel their own intuitions about their own fears and their own anxieties, and essentially, shove them away while the scientific community is saying, 'No, no, no, no, you need to wear your masks. You need to remain socially distant with among each other, and not have big gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I know how much that sucks.'

And you have these two competing narratives. And I think that feeds into which narrative you play into. And it's just tragic, that from my personal perspective, it's tragic that we have a situation where we need to trust the science now. And we need to trust what the scientists are saying, not personal experiences or anecdotes.

TS: To lead off of that, my question would be, if I am a scientist or researcher, is there a way I can tailor my message perhaps to appeal more to people who might who might trust these anecdotal messages, moreso than something straight from a scientist's mouth?

That's a good question. I don't know if I have a really good answer for that one. Because the point is not to say that your science is always right. The point is to say that if there is consensus, and we've agreed upon facts that anecdotes and personal experiences do not constitute the enormous amount of data that's being collected in any given topic.

So with the coronavirus pandemic, there's a ton of data, and personal experiences and anecdotes shouldn't be held on equal footing to that massive amounts of data. So I don't know if I have a message to convey to people other than, "Please trust the data on this."

But scientists are biased just like any other human are, which is the main facet of my research, is humans are inherently biased. And it's very difficult to break some of those biases in persuasion. And so I think my thing here is, let's just trust the scientists in this particular one, because time is of the essence. And lives are of the essence.

TS: You've been conducting this research with your colleagues for the last couple years. What other avenues of research does this open up? Where can you branch off from here to explore this?

AS: My collaborator, Randy Stein, and I are going to be talking about follow-ups . One of the things that we're exploring is following this "feelings are truth scale" that we introduce into literature with this paper.

Following that up, finding more avenues where that actually is the case -- that people tend to rely on their intuitions and replace scientific truth with anecdotal or experiential truth, intuitive truth.

And a few colleagues have raised really important questions, which not every single papers going to get at, especially ours. We can't explore every single facet.

One of the interesting questions that I just came across was a scientific literacy plan So our our sample was from across the United States -- and it was only Americans that were allowed to participate here. And we did not asktheir level of scientific knowledge or their level of scientific engagement, and I think that is an important mediator as well, that we might include in future studies.

TS: Alex, was there anything else you wanted to add or that you would like people to know or take away from your work?

AS: Yeah, I we're not trying to we're not trying to vilify conservatives and in any way with this data.

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