Democracy, it might be said, is about people making informed decisions for themselves. This premise believes that people are rational in their decision-making; if we have all the facts, then we will come to the proper, intelligent, balanced, sensible conclusions. If that’s really the case, then why does controversy exist?
One reason: people may only be researching one side of the story –the side they already agree with- no matter whether or not other views are available.
Researchers Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick and Jingo Meng at Ohio State University studied how much time and attention people give to news articles that are already in line with what they believe (“attitude-consistent”) and articles that describe an opinion opposite to their own (“counterattitudinal”). The researchers created a fake online news magazine with a variety of articles, including some on four controversial “target issues”: gun control, abortion, minimum wage, and universal healthcare.
By measuring how much time subjects read either the pro and/or con articles on controversial subjects, the researchers were able to determine how much people “exposed” themselves to differing opinions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers found that people are more likely to pursue articles that confirm their beliefs (36% more time on attitude-consistent articles than on counterattidudinal articles). This is more commonly known as confirmation bias.
But what does this mean for science media?
While this democratic-rational-mind-informative-media concept usually makes us think of political issues, the fact is, political issues often are science: science becomes the realm of politics when the results affect everyone.
For example, climate change is an international debate between equally respectable, reasonable people who have looked at what the science has reported, and come to entirely different conclusions. Other examples include stem cell research, GMOs, and pollution. Even issues like gun control and poverty need statistical data to support any argument.
So what do we do about it?
If people are more likely to skip articles which contradict their already-established opinions, how are we, as a public and as a democracy, supposed to make informed decisions about science?
…… This is where things get difficult.
Largely, it’s probably up to each individual to recognize the reality of confirmation bias and personally strive to correct for this psychological tendency by (open-mindedly) seeking out both sides of a debate. Creators of media, like journalists, can try to minimize their own biases and own up to any mistakes.
These aren’t exactly thrilling solutions though. Can you think of any better strategies for dealing with confirmation bias as Science Communicators?
Reference: Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Meng, J. (2009). Looking the other way: Selective exposure to attitude-consistent and counterattitudinal political information. Communication Research, 36(3), 426-448.