Is the Tea Party Movement Pro Science?

Many of you are already aware of today’s topic, because we found it on the Drudge Report. A limited scan indicates that most science-oriented blogs have ignored it, but this is the sort of thing that intrigues us — although it may upset a few of you. The story appears on the Politico website; their headline is Eureka! Tea partiers know science. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

A finding in a study on the relationship between science literacy and political ideology surprised the Yale professor behind it: Tea party members know more science than non-tea partiers.

They start with the shocking news, right up front. The details are interesting:

Yale law professor Dan Kahan posted on his blog this week that he analyzed the responses of more than 2,000 American adults recruited for another study and found that, on average, people who leaned liberal were more science literate than those who leaned conservative.

That doesn’t surprise anyone — not even your Curmudgeon. Let’s read on:

However, those who identified as part of the tea party movement were actually better versed in science than those who didn’t, Kahan found. The findings met the conventional threshold of statistical significance, the professor said.

That certainly is surprising — indeed, it would be impossible if the whole tea party movement were comprised of people like the examples we’ve posted about — for example, Kelly Kohls, the creationist nutritionist who runs her local Tea Party organization, and who has been trying to get her school board (of which she was President until recently), to teach creationism. Aside from her, we all know of other Tea Party-backed candidates who have been intellectual shipwrecks and political disasters. Nevertheless, in spite of the all but universal perception that extremist whackos are the Tea Party norm, that stereotype doesn’t hold true. We continue:

Kahan wrote that not only did the findings surprise him, they embarrassed him. “I’ve got to confess, though, I found this result surprising. As I pushed the button to run the analysis on my computer, I fully expected I’d be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension,” Kahan wrote.

That’s entirely understandable, and we applaud Kahan for publishing his findings, notwithstanding his embarrassment. By the way, here’s his page at the Yale Law School: Dan M. Kahan. Impressive résumé. And here’s his blog article. We’ll give you one more excerpt from Politico, and this too says a lot about Professor Kahan’s intellectual integrity:

“But then again, I don’t know a single person who identifies with the tea party,” he continued. “All my impressions come from watching cable tv — & I don’t watch Fox News very often — and reading the ‘paper’ (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused Internet sites like Huffington Post and POLITICO). I’m a little embarrassed, but mainly, I’m just glad that I no longer hold this particular mistaken view.”

The article has attracted over 4,000 comments! One of the earliest — by “TexazEric” — provides some information that may explain the professor’s seemingly anomalous findings:

There are really only 3 major platforms of the Tea Party. 1) Return to the Constitutional enumerated powers for the Federal government with all other issues being relegated to the states and the people. 2) Rein in Federal spending with common sense solutions and fiscal responsibility and 3) Repeal the PPACA so that individual liberty is returned to the people.

What’s PPACA? You may know it as “Obamacare,” but it’s official name is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Is that comment accurate? According to Wikipedia’s article on the Tea Party movement, it’s decentralized, with no “formal structure or hierarchy,” so there can be local variations. We’ve heard about some of those. However, they say:

The Tea Party has generally sought to avoid placing too much emphasis on traditional conservative social issues. National Tea Party organizations, such as the Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, have expressed concern that engaging in social issues would be divisive. Instead, they have sought to have activists focus their efforts away from social issues and focus on economic and limited government issues.

It would seem that people attracted to the Tea Party’s principal issues are more science literate than the rest of the population. At least that’s a likely interpretation of Professor Kahan’s findings. Are you surprised, dear reader?

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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36 responses to “Is the Tea Party Movement Pro Science?

  1. What a relief it is to know that Tea Partiers understand science. Now if they would only learn ethics…

  2. I am not extremely surprised, even as a liberal, studies have shown that tea partiers and evangelicals for the most part are different and not extremely connected branches of the Republican party. Considering the ‘miscellaneous’ category includes Evangelicals, Hippy Dippy Anti-Science Pro-Nature liberals, and other anti-science groups (anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, etc) I can understand how that might be the findings of the study.

  3. Charles Deetz ;)

    I’d say TP’ers are more engaged and studied in general. But its what they do with that knowledge that counts. These are the guys you can gish gallop you like nobody’s business.

  4. Also they’re not so much pro-science as indifferent with understanding of it.

  5. Mark Germano

    Just because I understand how gangland style executions work doesn’t mean I support them. I’ve read dozens of times on this blog that the enemies of science understand that they are lying to the faithful. If the rank and file aren’t anti-science the people they elect seem to be.

  6. Ceteris Paribus

    But when you look at Prof. Kahan’s blog article we see can see he conflates “science” with “engineering”, and is drawing his samples from a polluted well.

    Kahan describes his methodology:

    “The “science comprehension” measure is a composite of 11 items from the National Science Foundation’s “Science Indicators” battery, the standard measure of “science literacy” used in public opinion studies (including comparative ones), plus 10 items from an extended version of the Cognitive Reflection Test, which is normally considered the best measure of the disposition to engage in conscious, effortful [sic] information processing (“System 2”) as opposed to intuitive, heuristic processing (“System 1”)

    I’m skeptical enough of an academic who uses the term “effortful” in public, but that is trifling compared to what his link to the NSF Science Foundation reveals as the banner of its home page:

    National Science Board
    Science and Engineering Indicators 2012
    A broad base of quantitative information on the U.S. and international science and engineering enterprise” [bold added]

    Henry Morris, one of the founders of the modern creationist movement was a well respected professor of engineering. Many of the purported “scientists” signing lists disputing or rejecting evolution and published by the Discovery Institute, among others, are self-described as mere engineers in fields far removed from the sciences of biology or geology.

  7. So Sarah Palin understands and supports science, and Sen. Broun,
    I don’t think so.

  8. I’d suspect that if Professor Dan Kahan were to survey just elected officials (as opposed to the general population) who self-identify as Tea Partiers he’d get a very different result.

  9. I also question the definition of Tea Party as being less interested in social issues – it seems to me that the “family values” zealots are almost all firmly within the Tea Party’s ranks. I think it’s intentionally misleading to pretend that social issues are not a major driver for the Tea Party.

  10. Another point is that there are many very smart people that lack an element of what I might call intellectual honesty. That is, they might be smart and know a lot of facts, but they have no self reflection to their thinking. They are smart enough to rationalize anything that they believe, and much more likely to take this route than one involving self critique. Their collection of fact is not driven by a motivation to think deeply about their world view, but rather to convince themselves that they are smarter than others and know enough facts to show other people up . This is certainly how I read Ted Cruz. So, one has to consider in this context how important is raw “smarts” versus intellectual “honesty”.

  11. Charles Deetz ;)

    @Ed, I agree. When TP first came out they were (and said they were) purely motivated about small government. But they’ve collected a faction of social right-wingers that are equally extreme. You might say that the dixie flag at the white house last weekend was another sign of their dysfunction and ability to attract any and all right wing extremists.

  12. Are you surprised, dear reader?”

    Not in he least, and in fact it’s what I expected (full disclosure: I agree with TPers on many issues, but disagree with their tactics, especially the pandering to authoritarians). First, as Willbell123 notes, most people of both parties are horrendously science-illiterate. So a slight increase in any group is barely worth a yawn. Show me that their average science literacy rivals that of the average college freshman bio major, and you might have a talking point.

    You know my usual rant is coming…Though professional and amateur anti-evolution activists are a tiny minority, they’re probably a higher % of TPers than of the general public (a similar case can be made for anti-climate-change-activists). But most of those activists do know the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, can name several geologic periods, and know what telomeres are. Stop a random person on the street and ask if they do. Get the picture? The activists understand the science well enough to effectively misrepresent it to a majority. They can afford to sound a lot more clueless than they really are, especially since their misleading sound bites are much more “catchy” than the technical refutations.

    So when I hear that “creationists” don’t “understand evolution” I get annoyed. Certainly the activists don’t understand it as well as the scientists who do the actual work. And rank and file evolution-deniers probably understand it even more poorly than the average person on the street. But it is both wrong and counterproductive to confuse the two, and pretend that the activists’ deliberate misrepresentations are merely “misunderstandings.”

  13. Richard Olson

    Yale law professor Dan Kahan posted on his blog this week that he analyzed the responses of more than 2,000 American adults recruited for another study and found that, on average, people who leaned liberal were more science literate than those who leaned conservative.

    Based on the information provided in the paragraph above, I’m comfortable withholding judgement about Professor Kahan’s claim until independent verification of the study questions/results is forthcoming. It is only fair to admit that until this claim does withstand scrutiny, I am extremely skeptical of the claim. There are Michael Schermer’s around, to be sure, but do they actually outnumber the Darryl Inhofe’s, for real?

  14. Richard Bond

    Check out Bonferroni’s inequalities.

  15. Ask Tea Party members if they accept the scientific evidence that humans evolved from an earlier primate. There’s your test for science literacy.

  16. @Tallgrass05:

    I wish that were a test for science literacy, but it’s not. Most people who say “yes” do so from rote memorization, and accept it for all the wrong reasons, not because of any serious consideration of the evidence. Whereas many who say “no” might understand the science well enough to know the difference between merely sharing common ancestors (which they might accept or play dumb about) and having “RM + NS” be the cause of the resulting species change (and either not accept it, or pretend to not accept it). IOW they know that science is correct about the “~4 billion year old tree of life” and that Genesis literalists are not, but capitalize on the word “evolved” to hide that “inconvenient truth.”

    More important than the “right left” scale is the one from “person on the street” to “activist” scale. From what can tell, TPers include more activist than other right-wingers.

  17. My goodness, this professor conducts what can be described as the only scientific study of scientific knowledge that compares Tea Party people to people of other political persuasions, and because you don’t like the result, you poop all over it, armed with nothing more than anecdotal evidence and the bilge spread by the MSM and the Tea Party’s political enemies.

    You guys are acting just like creationists: “Radioisotopic dating is unreliable… blah, blah blah…. This professor’s study is garbage because it doesn’t comport with my dearly held beliefs based purely on anecdotal evidence and the rantings fed to me by partisan Democrats, Journo-Fisters, and the mainstream media that Tea Party people are all illiterate Socon monsters with horns growing out of their heads.”

    Fiscal sanity/limited government is the primary unifying issue of the Tea Party and its adherents. Of course there are going to be Socons infecting the group: that’s what Socons do — they try to take over every political entity they can get their hands on, from your local school board to the Tea Party — and everywhere they go, they are disproportionately vocal, so they tend to get more media coverage than run of the mill Tea Party people whose primary concern is fiscal issues. And right on its face, it should be self evident that there is a fundamental rift between the Tea Party movement and the Socons — one cannot be in favor of limited government and at the same time advocate in favor of snooping through the citizens’ bedroom for unapproved sexual activity. That alone should tell you that the Tea Party != Socons.

    It should also be no surprise that some of the early “Tea Party” candidates turnout to be the usual Socon suspects, because in a neophyte political movement, the Socon’s will have an organizational edge over others, as the defining characteristic of Socons is that they are well-organized busy-bodies. But I would expect over time, the fiscal conservative/limited government Tea Partiers will get get better organized, and the Socons will tend to pushed aside more and more, though there might always be a few of them trying to glomb onto the Tea Party movement and pervert it to their own ends.

    But to point to a handful of high profile Socons who have successfully usurped the Tea Party’s banner and pretend they are representative of the entire movement’s adherents is a logical fallacy, on the same order as that made when conservatives point to a Socialist like Bernie Sanders and scream the Democrats are all Socialists! (Many are, but I would not be so bold as to claim they all are.)

    The mark of a truly scientifically literate person is his willingness to embrace conclusions that are at odds with the persons beliefs, but which are supported by the objective evidence.

    Don’t be a denialist; go where the data sends you. The Tea Party is not what you’ve been told it is, and it is not an enemy of science.

  18. longshadow shows up and says: “The mark of a truly scientifically literate person is his willingness to embrace conclusions that are at odds with the persons beliefs, but which are supported by the objective evidence.”

    That’s terrible behavior, Longie! Everyone was happily expressing his inner beliefs, and then you come along and behave like a party-pooper.

  19. At least I’m not a Tea Party-Pooper…..


  20. The two questions “which party has the most scientifically literate people?” and “which party has the most people who to want to teach the controversy or a literal Genesis in public schools?” Can have the same answer. I don’t dispute what this guy’s study found.

  21. Auto correct made that post come out wonky.

  22. longshadow: “You guys are acting just like creationists:”

    Thanks! I have been noticing that irony a lot lately. Particularly how so many fellow “Darwinists” speak in terms of “kinds” (“us vs. ‘the creationists’,”) rather than acknowledging the range of positions, which do evolve, if not easily. Also, the obsession with religion, and countering the “argument from design” with the equally misleading “argument against design.”

    Yet there is one way in which I wish we would be more like creationists (anti-evolution activists) – by asking our opponents more questions about their “theories,” and accusing them of censorship, instead of merely refuting their claims and denying that we censor. All defense and no offense is not the way to win.

  23. So if I dispute this one study, I am as ignorant as someone who denies decades of convergent findings supporting evolution? C’mon.

    Also: no true tea party member would want to teach the controversy?

  24. longshadow: “The mark of a truly scientifically literate person is his willingness to embrace conclusions that are at odds with the persons beliefs, but which are supported by the objective evidence.”

    As one who has done just that, I’m sure that the great majority will do it to, if not for purely noble reasons, at least knowing that evidence must be independently verifiable, so they can only get away with denying the “convergence, neither sought nor fabricated” for so long before “expelling” themselves. But we also know that a small % of science-literate people use their literacy to sell out to pseudoscience. Which unfortunately can be more lucrative than science, especially if their “product” promises eternal salvation – or at least to lose 30 lbs in 30 days.

  25. An r=0.05 is r-squared=0.0025, meaning that self-reported Tea Party membership explains 0.25% of the total variability in the science education scores. No big whup.

    From the blog post:

    … I won’t be surprised at all if the correlations between science comprehension and political ideology or identification with the Tea Party movement disappear or flip their signs. These effects are trivially small, & if I sample 2000+ people it’s pretty likely any discrepancy I see will be “statistically significant”–which has precious little to do with “practically significant.”

    Nailed it.

  26. Tomato Addict disparagingly says: “No big whup.”

    Yes, but however small the figure, it clearly contradicts the popular perception. If the expectations of most people were even remotely accurate, the figure would have been significantly larger in the other direction.

  27. Curmie, you are probably right – if there was much of a difference we should expect to see it more clearly, instead of this result which is essentially “no difference”. I still have some statistical objections:

    1) This isn’t a multivariate analysis. The author already demonstrated other factors predicting science comprehension which this histogram does not consider. We are getting the most complete interpretation of the data.

    2) The author is blogging many different results from one survey sample. It’s a fishing expedition and he is showing us what he thinks is most interesting – it’s a form of cherry-picking. I don’t mean that critically, I do this sort of analysis all the time, but you have to be careful about what conclusions are drawn when the data is not being used as intended when the study was designed. The statistician’s adage, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess”, may apply here.

    3) This data was originally gathered for another purpose (political-leaning and Anti-vax belief), and the selection criteria for the sample can effect the results. I looked a bit, but didn’t find those methods, so I can’t comment on how well this data may represent Tea Party science comprehension.

    I did go on a bit. Sorry.

  28. Tomato Addict says:

    The statistician’s adage, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess”, may apply here.

    I donno about that. He wasn’t trying for this result when he started, and there’s no indication that he diddled with his original selection criteria or the data. He was satisfied with the “liberal vs. conservative” results. No one is questioning that finding. Then he ran the Tea Party results and he was shocked, because it seems to have filtered out a bunch of social conservative types.

  29. I dunno either, but that would be very testable in a multivariate analysis.

  30. The science scores of Tea Partiers over the general population are ‘significantly’ higher but the magnitude of the difference is laughable. Tea Party sympathizers are for all practical purposes as dumb as average Joes about science. Even college graduates, who score much higher as a group, leave much to be desired. And why the hell did Yale professor use correlation scores rather than a t-test? It is just depressing.

  31. Richard Bond

    OK: my first attempt to stir some discussion was too terse. Bonferroni’s principle is that multiple trials require scaling of the statistical p-value to compensate. With of millions of entrants, lottery jackpots can be won. A subtler effect is when a flukily “significant” result is published, but null results in the field are not submitted. This is recognised problem in medical research, and some of the more reputable journals now require pre-registration of experiments with clearly defined accept/reject criteria and rigid adherence to them. The subtlest of all is when a data set designed for one purpose is trawled for significance in unrelated fields, and any consequent “significant” result presented as worthy of notice. This appears to be the case here. Frankly, before any discussion about possible causes is sensible, people should take a sceptical look at whether the statistical methodology is even valid.

  32. Let me rephrase Bond’s point in everyday terminology.

    In statistics you always face the danger of “hypothesis fishing,” which means that if you have one set of data you can keep analyzing and re-analyzing the data, testing a different hypothesis each time, and eventually you can and will find at least one hypothesis yielding a correlation with ANY desired level of statistical significance, so long as you run enough tests– even if your data were totally random, and there were no real causal effects at all! Imagine a data set that’s totally random, arranged in columns A, B… to Z. If you decide you want a correlation where the null hypothesis is rejected (effect “found”) at a 1% level, then if you test 100 hypotheses, just by random chance one out of 100 will yield a 1% effect (by definition). So you test for a correlation between A and B, then A and C, then B and C, etc. until you do 100 tests. Then the test that is “significant” at the 1% level isn’t really significant.

    The Bonferroni correction fixes that by adjusting for the number of hypotheses.
    — Diogenes

  33. And Benson’s point needs reiterating: “And why the hell did Yale professor use correlation scores rather than a t-test?”

    Measuring correlation with r-values doesn’t tell you much. It tells you that when X increases Y tends to increase on average, but it doesn’t tell you how strong the effect is. So his correlation is “significant”– that doesn’t mean it’s strong.

    Too many amateurs and greenhorns are impressed by “statistical significance” as if a tiny number has some kind of mystical power. Strength of effect is also important. In statistics it’s very easy to get tiny probabilities like 1 in 10^-10 or what all. Greenhorns are mesmerized by this, they don’t know how easy it is to get tiny probabilities. Like creationists when they compute the prob of “evolution” by equating it to the prob of scrambling all parts. Yeah, you get a tiny number, so what?

    — Diogenes

  34. I’m not sure how many of these Republicans are Teahadists, but here is a terrifying (no, really) brief article on the Republicans on the House Committee on Science: rape philosophers, warming conspiracists and creationistas. They really do hate scientists– not “evolutionists”, scientists. Analogous to the Communist system, in which the most psychopathic person rose to the summit of power, today’s GOP has a system in which the person who hates science the most is assigned to the Committee on Science.

    — You know who

  35. Another likely cause; my (admittedly anecdotal) impression of the Tea Party is that they are white, suburban, older, and what used to pass for middle-class in this country: the factory and technical jobs that went away in the Great Recession and haven’t come back so far. They also enjoy their independence and doing the respectable, practical thing. If they’re particularly religious, I’d expect mainline Protestant rather than evangelical, though I can see how evangelicals would be drawn to the organization as well.

    That sounds like a demographic that would put a high premium on science education. if they’re old enough for this to apply, they may also connect patriotism to the race to the moon and the arms race with the Soviet Union. being able to get things done is probably a big part of what it means to be an American, so i can see a larger portion in that crowd being scientifically literate than (say) upper-class people who studied the humanities because it appealed to them and they had more luxury to do that. The Tea Party may not defer to experts on a lot of issues, but they do seem the sort who want to know How Things Work.