Motivated Reasoning and the Quest to Depoliticize Science - Hobart and William Smith Colleges
The HWS Update

Motivated Reasoning and the Quest to Depoliticize Science

In a potentially groundbreaking recent study, two Hobart and William Smith faculty members shed light on the question of whether direct education in the scientific process can influence motivated reasoning, which relies on emotional decision-making.

During a 15-week study of 100-level HWS geoscience courses, Professor of Geoscience and Senior Dean of Faculty Nan Crystal Arens and Assistant Professor of Psychology Emily Fisher looked at the correlation between students’ worldview, their general scientific knowledge and their attitudes about climate change, and how those attitudes changed by the end of the semester.

Fisher, whose research focuses on political psychology and this sort of motivated reasoning, says that “when we’re thinking through an issue, we don’t realize we’re not being objective and are then led to believe the outcome we expected.” In other words, “you bias your thinking toward an expected outcome.”

At the recent International Society of Political Psychology conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, Arens and Fisher explained that in their initial surveys of the courses, they found correlations between students’ climate knowledge and political and psychological preferences.

“If you don’t understand it, you can easily dismiss it,” says Arens, “but if you’ve looked at the data and plotted the points, it’s harder to say this isn’t real.”

This hypothesis is supported by their findings. By the end of the semester, the correlations linking climate knowledge and ideology were no longer significant, suggesting that “good, sound, sustained pedagogy, as hard as it is, is able to shift entrenched thinking,” Arens says. “If that’s true, and if it can be generalized, that’s really powerful.”

Motivated reasoning was not entirely eliminated, but the results leave Fisher hopeful that “giving people the cognitive tools they need to think about scientific issues” will yield a better-informed, and less contentious, public dialogue.

Encouraged by the feedback at the ISPP conference, they plan to replicate the study this fall in an attempt to validate their initial findings.

On Friday, Sept. 1, they will present their work on the subject during the first Friday Faculty Lunch of the semester.

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