By Christian Jarrett
Officially at least, last week’s global March for Science was politically neutral. However, there’s a massive over-representation of people with liberal, left-leaning views in science, and much of the science community is unhappy, to put it mildly, with the way politics is going, such as the Trump administration’s proposed deep cuts to science funding, and here in the UK, the impact of Brexit on British science.
Against the backdrop of these anxieties, many of the banners on display – such as “Alternative hypotheses, not alternative facts” and “Science reveals the truth” – conveyed a barely concealed message: if only right-wing conservatives could be a little more objective, less biased, more open-minded – you might say a little more “scientific” – then the world would be a better place.
Plenty of past psychology research lends some credence to this perspective: for instance conservatives tend to score lower on the trait of open-mindedness than liberals, and of course conservatives, more often than liberals, are sceptical toward the scientific consensus that human activity has had a significant impact on climate change. But it’s also easy to find psychological evidence of liberals’ bias, and liberals too are often in denial of unwelcome scientific theory, such as evolutionary accounts of sex differences in behaviour.
Now two new articles, published at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) and in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, respectively, provide further compelling evidence that liberals, as much as conservatives, are prone to partisan bias – that is, showing rapid, easy acceptance of evidence that supports their existing beliefs – and that they are just as motivated to avoid hearing viewpoints that differ from their own. Whether we’re liberal or conservative, a first step toward combating our political prejudices, the paper in SSRN concludes, is “to recognize our collective vulnerability to perceiving the world in ways that validate our political beliefs”.
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