A recent study at the University of Wisconsin sought to determine why the most informed people often have the most polarized views about the importance of controversial science.
Dietram Scheufele, professor of life sciences communication, and Dominique Brossard, life sciences communication department chair, partnered with the Morgridge Institute for Research. Their study shows people who feel the most informed in terms of politics tend to interpret information differently.
Motivated reasoning – the idea that identical scientific facts can lead to different conclusions — is very counterintuitive, Scheufele said.
The people who feel most informed in terms of politics or other belief systems tend to interpret information differently, Scheufele said. The widest gaps are often between the highly educated, he said.
“You would assume that the people who are the most informed about particular topics are also the most reasoned [and] the most rational about it,” Scheufele said. “What’s happening is that the people who are the most informed on both sides of the political aisle also happen to be the people who hold the strongest partisan views.”
The institute hopes to map the political landscape and discover where the polarizations are, Scheufele said.
The study also found that when people try to make sense of complicated scientific issues, such as genetic engineering, stem cell research, climate change and synthetic biology, they use mental shortcuts, Brossard said.
“Knowledge can explain only a little bit of why feel differently,” Brossard said. “Most of what explains why people feel differently is really those values and mental shortcuts people use to make sense of complicated science.”
The research reflects work UW has been doing for a while, Scheufele said. It will study how modern science, such as stem cell research, vaccinations and synthetic biology, often ends up in highly politicized environments, he said.
Beyond “the walls of [the] university,” people raise political, ethical and moral questions about modern science’s applications in society, Scheufele said.
The study will attempt to better anticipate the ethical, political and moral debates and create a good dialogue, he said.
The institute is looking into how those questions are going to play out in political arenas and how bridges can be built between the university and society, Scheufele said.
“[We] have begun to think about how we can best put the Wisconsin Idea into action and figure out a way where we can establish really good links between what we do here at Wisconsin, in terms of cutting-edge research, and how that affects people’s lives on a daily basis,” he said.
This research is more urgent than ever because society is transitioning into an age where science is more fast-moving, Scheufele said. Every nine years the body of scientific knowledge doubles, he said.
The Morgridge Institute can, in collaboration, play a leadership role both nationally and internationally, Scheufele said. UW is building a model for how other universities can conduct their research, he said.
“The transition from the bench to bedside, from when it’s developed in the lab to when it ends up in your pill box on your nightstand, is much shorter,” Scheufele said. “All these technologies come with a lot of questions about regulations.”