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Place your bets now. How much does someone’s world view predict their other attitudes?

- January 12, 2016
A ‘Blue Marble’ image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA satellite Suomi NPP. (NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring)

Dan Kahan and his team at the Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition project have been doing a bunch of research recently on:

… the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.

That’s of obvious interest to Monkey Cage readers and students of politics more generally. To what extent are our attitudes on hot-button issues simple products of our political leanings?

The question is important because political decisions are in part driven by public opinion. The answer can’t be simple. We know that the correlations between issue attitudes, partisanship, and ideology have changed over time. For example, conservatives are more likely than liberals and moderates to believe that vaccines cause autism.

Our beliefs about science and ideology are themselves often rigid. One trick that Kahan uses to shake us up is what he calls the MAPKIA (Make a prediction, know it all!) challenge, in which he describes an experiment on public opinion, but without revealing the results, and then asks the reader to guess what will happen.

For his latest MAPKIA challenge, Kahan brings up a question from a 2015 Pew Research survey on Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society. Here’s the survey item:


Kahan then asks:

How powerfully (if at all) will responses to the Pew Malthusian Worldview item predict beliefs and attitudes toward technological and environmental risks like climate change, fracking, nuclear power, and GM foods? Will it be a stronger predictor than political partisanship? Will responses interact with — or essentially amplify — the explanatory power of political ideology and party identification?

What will the relationship be between the Malthusian Worldview item and science literacy? Will responses be correlated with it — and if so in which direction? Will higher science literacy magnify the correlation between responses to the Malthusian Worldview and opposing perceptions of environmental and technological risks, just as higher science comprehension magnifies cultural polarization on climate change, nuclear power, fracking, and the like?

Kahan’s challenge:

“Make a prediction know it all” — and explain cogently the reasoning for it and how one might test your conjecture with Pew dataset items, which have been featured in previous posts and are set forth in their entirety at the Pew site.

If you’re interested in political polarization and attitudes toward science and policy, this is a great question. And as Kahan writes, “Perhaps my framing of the question implies an answer. But if you think I have one, then obviously mine could be wrong!”

As sociologist Duncan Watts has written, everything is obvious (once you know the answer). That’s why it’s a good exercise to commit first on this one before learning the answer.

Here’s an example from the Monkey Cage a couple of years ago of researchers who jumped to conclusion about public opinion which turned out not to be borne out by the data. As I wrote at the time:

[Alfred Moore, Joseph Parent and Joseph Uscinski] write, “When science means nuclear weapons, innovation and winning the space race, conservatives love it.” Actually, when I last looked at the data, I found that “support for the space program does not seem particularly associated with conservative or Republican positions.” There is indeed a logic to the idea that conservatives should support the space program (see my last paragraph here) but the data don’t seem to bear this out. My quick understanding of this is that political ideologies are interesting but ultimately you can’t make sense of them: any given person’s views are a tangle with many possibilities.

To return to the Malthusian worldview challenge: My point here is that political ideology and issue attitudes are tangled. Attitudes are not always carefully thought through, nor are they the pure product of political ideology or partisanship.

The Malthusian worldview seems like it might be a proxy for a simple liberal/conservative dimension, at least in the United States, but maybe it aligns with other aspects of people’s worldviews. In this post, I’m purposely not giving the answer (or, to be precise, I’m not giving data that would address this question) but am rather following Kahan by leaving it unresolved, to remind us of the uncertainty we should hold before seeing hard data on the relevant public opinion questions.