Education and scientific knowledge are linked to increased polarization surrounding controversial scientific issues like evolution, according to research published the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

“In general, I study how nonscientists understand science and the scientific process, and how they incorporate scientific evidence into their judgments and decisions,” Caitlin Drummond, the lead author of the study, told PsyPost.

“I had encountered some research suggesting that not only do American political liberals and conservatives tend to hold different beliefs regarding the existence and severity of climate change, but that more educated liberals and conservatives were even more divided on this issue,” she continued. “I wanted to examine whether we would observe this same pattern– that education is associated with holding more polarized beliefs– if we looked at other controversial science and technology issues, such as stem cell research and human evolution, and other aspects of identity, like religious affiliation.”

The researchers analyzed data from more than 2,000 U.S. adults that was gathered by the biannual General Social Survey. In 2006 and 2010, the survey asked about six potentially controversial scientific issues: stem cell research, the Big Bang theory, human evolution, climate change, nanotechnology, and genetically modified foods. It also included a science literacy test and standard sociodemographic measures such as years in school.

Drummond and her colleagues found that polarization about stem cell research, the Big Bang theory, evolution and climate change was greater among individuals with more general education and among individuals with greater scientific knowledge.

“Our research suggests that people with more education and science knowledge may be more divided on science issues that are controversial on religious or political grounds,” Drummond said. “But, not all scientific issues are divisive: politics and religion can divide us, but they don’t always.”

On the two other scientific issues, nanotechnology and genetically modified food, the researchers found little evidence of political or religious polarization.

“We observed that those with greater education and science knowledge were more polarized by politics and religion on already-controversial issues, but our data are not able to tell us why this is the case,” Drummond explained.

It could be that motivated thinking is to blame. In other words, more educated people may be better at finding information that supports their views. But that is a question for future studies to address. The study’s cross-sectional methodology prevents the researchers from making conclusions about cause and effect.

“More research is needed to better understand whether increased education causes increased polarization, or whether there are other factors that are driving the relationship that we observe,” Drummond explained. “I also think that an important avenue of future research would be to better understand how it is that certain scientific issues became polarized along political and religious lines in the first place.”

“Additionally, we were only able to examine participants’ opinions regarding the science and technology topics included in the General Social Survey (GSS), our data source. We would like to expand our analyses to look at additional topics not included in the GSS, like vaccination.”

The researchers also found a link between trust in science and agreement with the scientific consensus.

“Across all of the issues that we looked at, those who reported having greater trust in the scientific community were more likely to hold beliefs consistent with the scientific consensus,” Drummond said. “We observed a consistent, positive effect of trust amongst both political liberals and conservatives, and both religious liberals and fundamentalists.”

The study, “Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics“, was also co-authored by Baruch Fischhoff.