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Our politics make us bad at understanding math and other simple facts

Jaebien Rosario
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Jaebien Rosario
Our politics make us bad at understanding math and other simple facts
Artwork by Claire McCloskey

Despite the fact that an alarmingly high number of people believe the earth is flat, science communicators should not assume their audience is ignorant. 

Assuming ignorance is the old “knowledge deficit hypothesis”. Science communicators think that if they just gave people more knowledge, they would readily accept what they’re told. But this neglects fundamental human psychology. 

The reality is humans are social, we tend to fall into social groups and make those groups a part of our identity. These social identities influence seemingly rational people, you and I, to disregard basic facts.

In a research paper, scientists wanted to find if conflicts over science-related policy happen due to a lack of scientific literacy or an inner need to stay connected to one’s social identity, therefore leading people to disregard contradictory evidence.

We assume people can objectively complete mathematical problems independent of other social factors. Most won’t argue over whether 1 + 1 = 2 even if we have different views on Chinese tariffs. 

To test whether our political beliefs, not factual knowledge, affected a population’s interpretation of facts, participants were separated into groups based on their political identity and asked a set of four questions. All questions involved a difficult math problem, but two were on a day-to-day scenario, while the other two were focused on a controversial political topic. The participants had to determine whether gun control measures lead to an increase or decrease in crime.

Those identified as ‘conservative Republicans’ were more likely to get the problem wrong if the answer supported a decrease in crime. Those who identify as ‘liberal Democrats’ were more likely to get the problem wrong if the answer supported an increase in crime.

Overall, people were 45% more likely to answer the gun control problem incorrectly if the answer challenged their political beliefs regardless of mathematical ability.

We know political beliefs can influence people's views on scientific topics and positions. This makes understanding the political and social identity a person holds important when scientists craft their message for the public.

Unfortunately, people are tribal. We fight over our favorite sports teams, we disagree about religion, and we approach politics as our “team” versus our “rival”. This research showcases that by just identifying with a certain group of people, we can look at 1 + 1 and see completely different things.