While an educated public is undoubtedly a crucial element to a democratic society, a new study from the University of Kansas has found that the most educated Americans also tend to harbor the most partisan political beliefs.
“Though the facts may point in the opposite direction, highly educated partisans are fully capable of ignoring ‘uncomfortable’ facts and indeed often motivated to protect their political beliefs,” said Dr. Mark Joslyn, a KU associate professor of political science, who authored the study with Dr. Don Haider-Markel, a professor and chair of the KU Department Political Science.
The researchers examined surveys on how the public construed facts about highly politicized issues that included the 2003 Iraq War, global warming, evolution and the 2007 Iraq troop surge. While the study confirmed the value of education in political debate, the researchers said it was critical to also examine the effect of partisanship among the educated electorate.
“Our findings do show that education, alone, increases the likelihood of construing the facts correctly,” Dr. Joslyn said. “But when combined with partisanship, a common understanding of the facts diverge sharply. To the extent that a democratic system depends on an educated public able to discern facts from political fiction, our results should draw some concern. If the most educated portion of the public cannot agree on the facts, it would appear naïve to expect consensus in our representative institutions.”
Education facilitates partisan arguments
The study found, for example, that Republicans with high levels of education tended to support statements that were largely untrue but provided credence to the Bush administration’s justification for the 2003 Iraq war, including that Iraq had ties to al-Qaida or that the U.S. found dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Well-educated Democrats (correctly) disagreed with those sets of facts.
Dr. Joslyn said the key finding was that well-educated respondents disagreed more so along partisan lines than less-educated respondents in the survey. The study is not meant to criticize one political party over another, the researchers said, as they also found that well-educated Democrats supported incorrect facts about the effect of the 2007 troop surge, while Republicans correctly believed the surge once in place had decreased the rate of U.S. military casualties.
The researchers point out that education does provide people with cognitive development that aids them in serving as democratic citizens. For instance, educated people are able to more easily access information, process it and evaluate the alternatives.
“Less understood, but no less important, is that education provides the cognitive tools to resist information inconsistent with held beliefs,” Dr. Joslyn added. “Educated people possess greater cognitive resources and tools to counter facts incongruent with their dispositions and indeed exercise biases that reinforce convictions.”
Motivated reasoning: The case of climate change
This phenomenon, called motivated reasoning, is based on the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal — in this case, to confirm one’s own political views. A perfect example of this can be seen in the political debate surrounding climate change, as political scientist Chris Mooney explains in the following excerpt from The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science:
If you wanted to show how and why fact is ditched in favor of motivated reasoning, you could find no better test case than climate change. After all, it’s an issue where you have highly technical information on one hand and very strong beliefs on the other. And sure enough, one key predictor of whether you accept the science of global warming is whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. The two groups have been growing more divided in their views about the topic, even as the science becomes more unequivocal.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that more education doesn’t budge Republican views. On the contrary: In a 2008 Pew survey, for instance, only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college educated Republicans. In other words, a higher education correlated with an increased likelihood of denying the science on the issue. Meanwhile, among Democrats and independents, more education correlated with greater acceptance of the science.
Other studies have shown a similar effect: Republicans who think they understand the global warming issue best are least concerned about it; and among Republicans and those with higher levels of distrust of science in general, learning more about the issue doesn’t increase one’s concern about it. What’s going on here? Well, according to Charles Taber and Milton Lodge of Stony Brook, one insidious aspect of motivated reasoning is that political sophisticates are prone to be more biased than those who know less about the issues. “People who have a dislike of some policy—for example, abortion—if they’re unsophisticated they can just reject it out of hand,” says Lodge. “But if they’re sophisticated, they can go one step further and start coming up with counterarguments.” These individuals are just as emotionally driven and biased as the rest of us, but they’re able to generate more and better reasons to explain why they’re right—and so their minds become harder to change.
In future studies, Dr. Joslyn hopes to investigate media consumption and its effect on partisanship. “Undoubtedly, the current media environment encourages people to gravitate toward the information sources that reinforce their existing beliefs,” he said. “The Internet, with vast choices and contrary information, and partisan news sources on television appear to encourage partisan polarization about the facts.”
However, as politicians and voters lament partisanship and infighting that impede progress in Washington and state capitals across the country, the study provides insight perhaps into what has contributed to the political climate, the KU researchers said.
“If education does not create a common interpretation of political facts,” said Dr. Joslyn, “then prospects of successful public debate and deliberation about such facts is questionable.”