Greetings, fine Tilde Cafe patrons!
This weekend’s cafe was probably quite an eye-opener for many who attended it.
Consider this: if one is presented with numerical data obtained when testing a hypothesis, and if one is equipped with basic maths skills; is the likelihood that one will grasp the conclusion from those data/interpret the data correctly, high or low?
I reckon most people would assume that the level of maths skills would correlate with the extent of grasp of the conclusion. In other words, better numeracy, or the skill/ability to understand numbers and apply simple mathematical concepts, might be a prognosticator of one’s ability to realize, for example, that indeed climate change is a reality.
However, Professor Kahan’s research proved otherwise: when dummy data were presented to study subjects who self-reported on their political leanings (liberal or conservative), and participants were scored for numeracy, the findings were surprising. Greater numeracy did not always correlate with greater reasoning and correct data interpretation. When the data were numbers representing “results measuring the effectiveness of a skin cream”, and then the very same numbers represented “results from the effectiveness of banning concealed hand guns in public”, study participants fell in line with what their political beliefs were, despite the data, when it was a politically charged question like hand guns. In fact, greater the numeracy level, no matter whether the study participant was a liberal or a conservative, greater the propensity to align with the prevailing groupthink/dogma.
Professor Kahan and his colleagues then extended the study to evaluate how subjects who are “science curious” would interpret similar data. Science curiosity was determined based on a simple questionnaire. Participants also reported their political leanings, as in the previous study. In this instance, again, one might have thought that the results would mirror the numeracy results; to the contrary, science curiosity appears to imbue a level of thinking and data evaluation that reduces the level of dogmatic interpretation of data.
These results are from controlled experiments, and Professor Kahan and his colleagues are now testing them in the field. I don’t think curiosity killed the cat, and it looks like science curiosity might be one path to bridging chasms when it comes to politically charged issues.
Since you are a Tilde Cafe patron, we know you are curious about science and would score high in the “science curiosity” assessment that Professor Kahan uses, and although we aren’t sure how to engender science curiosity in adults, perhaps we could do our own little experiment: share Tilde Cafe events with your friends and family; share them with all and sundry too! And if you’re coming to an event, bring along someone who you know is not particularly interested in science – we can plot the change in their science curiosity as they gradually become Tilde Cafe patrons like yourself! And no, this study is not funded by tax dollars – it’s funded by a wish to engage more people’s science curiosity!
Of course, none of this dilutes the importance of numeracy at all, in fact I’m sure that Professor Kahan has looked at (or will be investigating) how numeracy and science curiosity correlate with each other in the field. The UK has an independent charity – National Numeracy – dedicated to “help raise low levels of numeracy among both adults and children and to promote the importance of everyday maths skills. We aim to challenge negative attitudes, influence public policy and promote effective approaches to improving numeracy. Where possible, we work in partnership with other organisations to achieve these aims.”
According to Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Good numeracy is the best protection against unemployment, low wages and poor health.” From what we heard at the cafe, perhaps we could add that science curiosity is a reasonable protection against spurious pronouncements that can have enormous repercussions!
Thanks, Dan, for a wonderfully engaging afternoon, in the comfort of a well air-conditioned Blackstone Library. Here’s the video of the afternoon – the preceding summary is rather inadequate!