Education strengthens science communication. Or does it???

Education strengthens science communication.  Or does it???  Contrary to common sense (and conventional science communication approaches), increasing scientific education may actually enhances polarization in public opinion on controversial issues in science!  We refer to this dynamic as the paradox of polarization.


This month we are reviewing the article, “Individuals with Greater Science Literacy and Education Have More Polarized Beliefs on Controversial Science Topics” by Caitlin Drummond and Baruch Fischhoff, which explored associations between scientific education and polarization in public opinion on controversial science topics.  Join us to discuss this study, the paradox of polarization and what this means for science communication during our upcoming Twitter chat on October 30, 2018 at 6:00PM (PST).

Why the Paradox of Polarization Matters

The paradox of polarization has real implications for public engagement in science and policy making on scientific issues.  Better understanding about how public opinion around scientific issues are formed and maintained will provide useful insights for science communicators to improve dialogue and trust between scientists and the public, as well as more effectively address misguided and scientifically incorrect beliefs among the public.  With the midterm election just around the corner, public opinion on scientific issues may play a role in voting behavior and will shape policymaking.

 Article Summary

According to the “deficit” model of communication, public disagreement on contentious scientific issues (e.g., vaccines; evolution; climate change) is due to a lack of public knowledge about a given issue.  Thus, science communication approaches have focused on educating citizens about these issues by providing them with fact-based information to fill in knowledge gaps and address misunderstandings.  The assumption is that citizens and decision-makers will view these facts as scientists do and make considered and well-informed decisions.  However, the deficit model was not intended to address controversial scientific issues.  The deficit model generally performs poorly when trying to engage the public on contentious, often politicized issues.  Scientific facts may be complicated by debate, complex information may be interpreted in various ways, and the uncertainties that are often a part of the scientific process may be perceived by the public as “limited understanding” of an issue.


This study relied on secondary analysis of the 2006 and 2010 General Social Survey (GSS).  Beliefs on six controversial scientific issues were examined.

  1. Human evolution
  2. Big Bang
  3. GMOs
  4. Nanotechnology
  5. Stem cell research
  6. Climate change

Specifically, the authors used models to estimate the extent that beliefs on these issues were related to political and religious identity and to test whether polarization was stronger among more educated respondents.  Three measures of education from the GSS were used: general educational attainment; science educational attainment; and scores on a test of scientific literacy.  The relationship between beliefs on specific issues and trust in the scientific community was also examined.


Political identity was significantly associated with beliefs on four issues: stem cell research; Big Bang; evolution; and climate change.  Religious identity was significantly associated with four (somewhat overlapping) issues: stem cell research; Big Bang, evolution, and nanotechnology.  For the issues of stem cell research, Big Bang, evolution, and climate change, polarization was greater for among individuals with more general education, science education, and higher scientific literacy scores.  Only nanotechnology was expressly related to religious identity and climate change to political identity.  Interestingly, beliefs about GMOs were not related to either political or religious identity.  Religious and political identity were only slightly correlated, but the patterns of polarization on four of the issues were similar.  Respondents with greater trust in science were more likely to hold beliefs consistent with scientific community.

The authors suggest that these findings may reflect motivated reasoning, in which more knowledgeable people (e.g., educated) are more adept at interpreting information that supports their preferred beliefs.   However, education may increase confidence more so than real knowledge (referred to as miscalibration).  More educated people may be better knowing what sides the political and religious communities may take on a given issue and therefore what position they should take to maintain consistency with their identity.

Questions for Future Research

  • What causal mechanism(s) may underlie the correlation between scientific knowledge and identity-based polarization?
  • Do these findings hold true for the current discourse about science and technology issues?
  • Is the relationship between education and identity-based polarization specific to the U.S. or can these findings be generalized to other countries? 

Citation: Drummond, Caitlin and Fischhoff, Baruch.  2017.  “Individuals with Greater Science Literacy and Education Have More Polarized Beliefs on Controversial Science Topics.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  114(36): 9587-9592