CHICAGO — Liberal and conservative partisanship is a widely discussed divide in recent U.S. politics, but a new study shows a strain of stark separation has emerged on what has long been considered politically neutral ground: science literature.
Researchers at the University of Chicago, as well as Yale and Cornell universities created a database of more than 25 million “co-purchases” and nearly 1.5 million book purchases from online giants such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Although frequent readers of both liberal- and conservative-leaning literature shared a preference for science books (versus sports or the arts), their specific choices within the discipline varied dramatically.
“Our study found that ‘blue’ readers prefer fields driven by curiosity and basic scientific concerns, such as zoology or anthropology, while ‘red’ readers prefer applied disciplines such as law and medicine, and with disciplines that patent more intensively,” says author Feng Shi, of the University of North Carolina, in a press release.
Overall, liberal readers showed preference for basic sciences, including physics, astronomy and zoology, while conservative readers prefer books on applied and commercial sciences including medicine, criminology and geophysics.
“One potential interpretation is that liberal readers prefer scientific puzzles, while conservative readers prefer problem-solving,” adds Shi.
The disciplines most closely tied to public policy-making discussions — including climatology and social science — revealed a very wide divide in the specific book purchases. The researchers expressed concern that the online book retailers’ built-in algorithms for recommending books to readers could actually spark further polarization by suggesting books that confirmed one side’s beliefs.
“Within science, there are clear differences in readership of specific topics and books, suggesting that science is not immune to partisanship and the ‘echo chambers’ of modern political discourse,” says James Evans, sociology professor at the University of Chicago.
Of the trends noted by the researchers, conservatives tended to cluster around peripheral and relatively isolated elements of a specific topic, while liberals preferred a wider variety of books at closer to the center of a topic.
The researchers concede that much of the “echo chamber” issue of readers simply sticking to their respective “red” or “blue” bubbles in book purchases could be exacerbated by the very same algorithms used to conduct this study and also used by the online bookstore companies analysis of its buyers’ “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” recommendation list.
Fields previously considered apolitical and a matter of consensus within the international scientific community — climate change, evolution and genetically modified organisms — have become polarized to the point the authors warn its “weakening science as a neutral, evidence-based driver of public policy decisions.”
The authors suggest better scientific communication in the key to pushing back against polarization in these disciplines.
“Our work adds urgency to the search for approaches to the communication of scientific information that counter selective exposures to ‘convenient truth’ and increase potential for science to inform political debate,” says Michael Macy of Cornell University’s Social Dynamics Laboratory.
“Our findings point to the need to communicate scientific consensus when it occurs, helping scientists find common cause with their audiences and adding public debate alongside scientific analysis to clarify the distinction between facts and values,” he adds.
The study’s findings were published last month in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.