The mythology among the people who really care about what is happening on the left or the right is that the people opposite them are uneducated and being exploited by elites.

The opposite is true: Polarized people tend to be highly educated. Sorry, Republicans, those Democrats did not register for the wrong party because they are dumb. and sorry, MSNBC viewers, Rush Limbaugh is one of the smartest people in America, whether you like his show or not. 

But that means some polarization is good. An educated public is a crucial element to a democratic society and educated people will have stronger opinions than those who always waffle and take the middle ground and say it depends on what the definition of something is.

Credit: NYU

"Though the facts may point in the opposite direction, highly educated partisans are fully capable of ignoring 'uncomfortable' facts and indeed often motivated to protect their political beliefs," said Mark Joslyn, a University of Kansas associate professor of political science, who authored the study with Don Haider-Markel, a professor and chair of the University of Kansas Department Political Science.

The researchers examined surveys on how the public construed facts about highly politicized issues that included the 2003 Iraq War, global warming, evolution and the 2007 Iraq troop surge. 

"Our findings do show that education, alone, increases the likelihood of construing the facts correctly," Joslyn said. "But when combined with partisanship, a common understanding of the facts diverge sharply. To the extent that a democratic system depends on an educated public able to discern facts from political fiction, our results should draw some concern. If the most educated portion of the public cannot agree on the facts, it would appear naïve to expect consensus in our representative institutions."

The study found, for example, that Republicans with high levels of education supported statements that provided credence to the Bush administration's justification for the 2003 Iraq war, including that Iraq had ties to al-Qaida or that the U.S. found dictator Saddam Hussein's regime in possession of weapons of mass destruction - those were all claims provided by French, German and American intelligence agencies but well-educated Democrats disagreed with those sets of facts. Though large caches of chemical weapons were found, and thousands of missile tubes to carry them, WMDs like a nuclear bomb did not exist, no matter what Hussein was claiming.

A different study might wonder why Democrats don't trust the evidence of three intelligence agencies and Republicans, invariably distrustful of French and German efforts to combat terrorism, accepted it. 

The facts happened to match the politics. 

Well-educated Democrats supported incorrect facts about the effect of the 2007 troop surge. And numerous studies have shown that well-educated Democrats lead American in denial of vaccines and agricultural science. Poor people can't afford alternative medicine and supplements. Republicans are more inclined to view evolution education as an atheist conspiracy.

Joslyn said education does provide people with cognitive development that aids them in serving as democratic citizens. They are able to more easily access information, process it and evaluate the alternatives.

"Less understood, but no less important, is that education provides the cognitive tools to resist information inconsistent with held beliefs," Joslyn said. "Educated people possess greater cognitive resources and tools to counter facts incongruent with their dispositions and indeed exercise biases that reinforce convictions."

As part of further research, political scientists could study media consumption and its effect on partisanship, Joslyn said.

"Undoubtedly, the current media environment encourages people to gravitate toward the information sources that reinforce their existing beliefs," he said. "The Internet, with vast choices and contrary information, and partisan news sources on television appear to encourage partisan polarization about the facts."

However, as politicians and voters lament partisanship and infighting that impede progress in Washington and state capitals across the country, the study provides insight perhaps into what has contributed to that political climate.

"If education does not create a common interpretation of political facts," Joslyn said, "then prospects of successful public debate and deliberation about such facts is questionable."

Article "Who Knows Best? Education, Partisanship and Contested Facts," published in Politics & Policy.