What happens when people in one political party in America are presented with science that doesn't align with their political views? The same thing that happens in the other party. They rationalize why it isn't valid science.

Despite claims by liberals that they hold some special acceptance of science - the same thing conservatives claimed until the 2000s - a new study has found it isn't the case when the science issue is political. It's no secret that conservatives are less likely to accept evolution and climate change science, science media has talked about it for over a decade. Yet science media doesn't note that anti-agriculture, anti-medicine and anti-energy views correspond to liberal voting, even though the public recognizes it. 

Credit: NYU

"Liberals are also capable of processing scientific information in a biased manner," said Erik Nisbet, co-author of the study and associate professor of communication and political science at The Ohio State University. "They aren't inherently superior to conservatives."

Just because both sides are biased doesn't mean we should create a false balance, of course. If conservatives deny evolution in some school district, no one is harmed. Liberals denying vaccines and food biology put real lives at risk. Climate change is a disaster waiting to happen.

"Our point is there is evidence of bias on both sides, although the bias may appear on different issues," said co-author R. Kelly Garrett, also an associate professor of communication at Ohio State.

For example, "liberals may be biased about some issues, but that doesn't mean they are wrong about humans causing climate change," Nisbet said. "You can't say our study supports the climate denialism movement."

Participants in the study were 1,518 people from across the country who were told they were evaluating a new educational website about science. But the researchers were actually trying to see how people reacted to science that they knew from previous studies challenged the views of conservatives (climate change, evolution) as well as science that challenged liberals (fracking, nuclear power) along with science that no one seems to have a problem with (geology and astronomy).

All participants were asked a variety of demographic questions, including questions about their political ideology and their knowledge about science.

They were then randomly assigned one of the six science topics. They were asked four true or false questions assessing the accuracy of their beliefs about the topic they were assigned. These questions all concerned well-accepted scientific facts.

For example, the nuclear power participants were asked whether people who live near nuclear power plants are typically exposed to 20 percent more radiation than are people who do not (False).

Those who were assigned climate change were asked whether there was a great deal of disagreement among scientists about whether or not climate change is primarily caused by human activities (False).

Participants then viewed the educational website page about their science topic. The page provided information that would have allowed participants to correctly answer all of the previous knowledge questions. Participants were asked to rate how much they felt several emotions, including anger and annoyance, after viewing the website.

The next questions aimed to find out how motivated the participants were to resist the facts presented on the website. For instance, they were asked whether they felt the website was objective and whether it "tried to pressure me to think a certain way."

Finally, the participants were asked to rate how much they agreed with five statements that measured their trust in the scientific community. For example, one statement was "I am suspicious of the scientific community."

The results showed evidence of bias by both conservatives and liberals, although there were differences in how the two sides reacted. Both liberals and conservatives felt more negative emotions when they read the scientific pages that challenged their views compared to those who read about the scientifically neutral topics (geology and astronomy).

However, the negative reaction of conservatives when they read about climate change and evolution was four times greater than that of liberals who read about nuclear power and fracking. Both liberals and conservatives showed evidence of motivated resistance against the facts related to the science topics that challenged their political beliefs.

But again, conservatives reacted more strongly than liberals, probably because the issues were hot buttons for conservatives. Nuclear power was banned by liberals 20 years ago, and no new plants were built long before that. It is no longer polarizing, though natural gas is. Had the issues been more topical, such as GMOs or trust in medicine, the reaction might have been just as strong.

They acknowledge that the difference may go beyond ideology.

"Climate change and evolution are much bigger issues in the media and political discourse than are fracking and nuclear power," Nisbet said. "The fact that the issues that challenge conservatives are currently more polarizing in society today may intensify feelings."

One of the more distressing findings of the study was that these polarizing issues made both sides lose some trust in science, Garrett said. "Even liberals showed lower trust in science when they read about climate change and evolution, issues about which they generally agree with the scientific community. Just reading about these polarizing topics is having a negative effect on how people feel about science."

Unfortunately, the media has the potential to increase politicization around other science issues, such as the current coverage of child vaccination and measles, Nisbet added. "A great deal of media coverage takes a partisan angle to the story by contrasting statements from potential Republican presidential candidates with President Obama's call for parents to ensure their children are vaccinated."

They leave out, for example, that Senator Obama said vaccines might cause autism when he was campaigning in 2008. Or that vaccine denial is in locales that are 80 percent Democrats. President Obama is trying to appeal to his constituents but when the New York Times spins it as Republicans being against vaccines, both sides lose trust in the media.

That type of politically-motivated media coverage has the potential to politicize what was once a non-partisan issue.

Nisbet said the media has seemed to go out of its way to highlight Republican candidates who support parental choice or question the need for required vaccinations. 

"What is lost in the coverage are the other Republicans who support vaccine use. Even more importantly, while the media is stoking controversy, they ignore the fact that the science backs up vaccine use and that the overwhelming majority of Americans do have their children vaccinated."

The most important implication of the study has to do with how we communicate controversial science, Garrett said. "Demonizing whole groups of people, saying that they are inherently incapable of understanding science, is not only false, it is not an effective communication strategy. Everyone can be biased. Calling people names is not a solution."

If science shaming were to end, all those corporate science blog networks would be out of business.

Citation: Erik C. Nisbet, Kathryn E. Cooper, R. Kelly Garrett , The Partisan Brain: How Dissonant Science Messages Lead Conservatives and Liberals to (Dis)Trust Science, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science March 2015 658: 36-66, doi:10.1177/0002716214555474