Liberals and Conservatives Are Reading Totally Different Science Books

In a new study, researchers were hoping science would be a bridge. That didn’t happen.

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Apr 3 2017, 3:00pm

Donald Trump's stunning win over Hillary Clinton in the US election woke large factions of liberals to the fact that they didn't understand their counterparts—and vice versa. Anyone who's sat with a slightly racist, well-meaning uncle over Thanksgiving dinner knows the feeling.

The election showed that the dangerous echo chambers that keep people from interacting with—or understanding—their ideological opposites don't end with Twitter and Facebook. Information bubbles of conservatives and liberals are affecting the kinds of science texts they consume: a new study in Nature Human Behaviour analyzed millions of books purchased online and found a divide between what liberals and conservatives are reading.

"The backdrop is the increasing political polarization of the population," Michael Macy, one of the authors and a sociologist at Cornell University, told me. "We were curious to know if perhaps science could be a bridge across the political divide. After all, science is really about the pursuit of truth, regardless of whether the truth is politically convenient."

Ideally that's true, but science can become heavily politicized. As just one example, anyone who's paid attention to changes underway at the Environmental Protection Agency—its head, Scott Pruitt, recently said he doesn't believe that CO2 emissions are a primary contributor to climate change—would argue otherwise.

But there's a difference between policy and straight science, Macy maintained. "Even when people disagree on policy, they can at least agree on the scientific research."

The authors of this study looked at millions of book purchases from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, to see which science books were bought alongside conservative-leaning or liberal-leaning political titles. While both groups were equally interested in science, people who bought liberal books also tended to buy ones about basic sciences (astronomy or physics, for example), while the other group liked applied sciences (like criminology or geophysics).

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When it came to climatology—the most passionate screaming-match marriage of science and politics in our time—the selective exposure was apparent. Liberals bought general-interest books, while conservatives' purchases were more clustered with books that "other conservatives would buy," Macy said, like texts that discussed "the rate at which there's global warming or the extent to which human actions are responsible for these changes."

The researchers also looked at literature, religion, arts, and sports books. They basically looked at the recommended-reading algorithm of the websites, in order to analyze the shopping patterns of people buying books on politics, and get at the echo chambers or "information bubbles" that limit cross-partisan understanding.

Impartial science could, ideally, be a bridge between liberals and conservatives—a gap that seems wider than ever. Information bubbles extend further out than most people realize. Understanding these echo chambers is important, so we can find ways to break free of them.

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