Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale, recently decided to do a study examining the relationship between political ideology and scientific literacy. Though Kahan has not admitted this publicly, it’s reasonable to assume that his intent was the same as most surveys of this stripe: proving that his opponents were idiots. He didn’t get his wish. As Politico reports:
… 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.
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.
Kahan’s results are interesting, though not especially suprising. Anyone who’s spent any time around Tea Party types knows that they’re interested in ideas. You don’t pick up an affection for the Founding Fathers, after all, without cracking a book every now and then. Therein lies the problem, however. Kahan hasn’t spent any time with Tea Party types:
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.
“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.”
When Richard Nixon won the 1972 presidential election in a landslide, the New Yorker’s film critic, Pauline Kael, reportedly said that she was shocked because “no one I know voted for him.” That story’s been a metaphor for liberal insularity ever since, but let’s be fair to Kael — she was on an arts beat at a famously liberal magazine.
Professor Kahan, by contrast, is a member of the faculty at arguably the most prestigious law school in the country — a place where one should theoretically be able to develop an understanding of a major stream of American political thought deeper than what can be gleamed from the digital pages of the Huffington Post. The key word there is “theoretically.”