Study: Conservatives, liberals read different scientific books

By: Susan Kelley,  Cornell Chronicle
April 3, 2017

Suggesting that science is not immune to political partisanship, new research shows liberals and conservatives share an interest in science but have stark differences in the types of scientific books they read.

An analysis of online book sales found people who bought liberal political books also tended to buy books on basic sciences, such as physics and astronomy. In contrast, purchasers of conservative political literature were more likely to buy books on the applied sciences, like criminology and geophysics.

The new study appeared April 3 in Nature Human Behaviour.

“When we look at what science books they read and on what topics, liberals and conservatives are noticeably divided,” said co-author Michael Macy, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Arts and Sciences and director of Cornell’s Social Dynamics Laboratory. “They tend to not read the same books, and they don’t follow the same topics.”

The research was motivated by the possibility that science might provide a much-needed bridge across political divisions, which have become ever deeper over the past 20 years, Macy said.

And the study did find left-leaning and right-leaning readers can agree on dinosaurs, for example. “In paleontology, liberals and conservatives are reading the same dinosaur books on the same dinosaur topics. And there are a few other areas like that, where they do have a real shared interest,” Macy said.

The researchers analyzed purchase histories from two of the world’s largest online book sellers, building a network from more than 25 million “co-purchases” and nearly 1.5 million books from the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online stores. After collecting data from “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” recommendations, the researchers could analyze the scientific purchases of readers who bought liberal or conservative books.

Initial analysis found that those buyers were more likely to purchase books on science than other nonfiction topics, such as arts and sports – a difference largely driven by interest in books on social science. However, co-purchases revealed that readers on opposite ends of the political spectrum were far more polarized for science than in arts and sports, and were less likely to buy and read the same science books.

The study found that left-leaning readers prefer fields driven by curiosity and basic scientific puzzles, such as zoology or anthropology, while right-leaning readers prefer applied disciplines, such as law and medicine.

Even when left- and right-leaning readers converged upon a scientific discipline, such as environmental science or political science, they rarely shared preferences for the same books within the subject area. Conservative choices tended to cluster on the periphery of a discipline, indicating that the books tended to be co-purchased with other conservative political books but not with other books in the discipline. Books preferred by liberals are less clustered, more diverse, and more likely to be co-purchased with other science books in the discipline.

The authors speculate people who buy political books, whether they’re liberal or conservative, tend to buy science books not so much because of their interest in science but because of a political interest that the science addresses. “If people were more interested in science for science’s sake it might be more of a bridge,” Macy said.

That is the basis for the researchers’ two recommendations on how to remedy “echo chambers” or “information bubbles,” where people are exposed to a narrow range of information that aligns with their existing political beliefs.

Scientists, they said, must instill an excitement about science regardless of its politics, and encourage students to appreciate scientific results – even politically inconvenient results. And scientists must also inspire students to seek out opposing points of view politically – not only to better understand their opponents’ arguments but also to better understand their own.

“Our findings point to the need to communicate scientific consensus when it occurs, helping scientists find common cause with their audiences, and adding public debate alongside scientific analysis to clarify the distinction between facts and values,” Macy said.

His co-authors are Feng Shi of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Yongren Shi of Yale University; Fedor Dokshin, a graduate student in the field of sociology at Cornell; and James Evans of the University of Chicago.

This story first appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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