Dan Kahan

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Curiosity—not just knowledge—about science influences public perceptions about vaccines, climate change

BOSTON—Can a simple inquisitiveness about science make the difference between people who accept concepts like evolution and humanmade climate change and those who don’t? That’s something Dan Kahan wants to figure out. A professor of psychology and law at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, Kahan gave a talk here on Friday at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, about something he calls “science curiosity” and it’s role in shaping personal opinion. Science sat down with him at the meeting to learn more. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
 
Q: What is science curiosity?
 
A: Science curiosity is a desire to seek out and consume scientific information just for the pleasure of doing so. People who are science curious do this because they take satisfaction in seeing what science does to resolve mysteries. That is different from somebody who would show interest in scientific information because they had a specific goal like wanting to do well in school. Science-curious people are driven by the pure activity of consuming what science knows.
 
Q: How do you measure science curiosity? 
 
A: Researchers have had trouble coming up with good measures for curiosity. We decided to make our measures very specific. We embed questions in what looks like a consumer marketing survey. It’s a composite of different types of questions such as self-reported opinions, behaviors, and objective measures. For example, one question helps us determine whether you want to read a story about science as opposed to sports, finance, or entertainment. We also have them watch science videos to see how long it takes before they turn them off. We try not to bombard people with questions that all come down to, “Do you like science?" Because they know what you're after. With our survey, they can't tell what it is we're after.
 
A: Can science curiosity help combat misconceptions about climate change and vaccines? 
 
Q: In our research, we’ve seen that with greater curiosity, people are more willing to take new information into account when forming their opinions about the world. I’m not concerned about if they change their mind—but rather if they are thinking better about what the issues are. In our study we observed this trend by chance when we weren’t looking for it. And that’s why we should study more—asking the question of, “If science curious individuals get information that’s contrary to their predispositions, are they more open to it?” 
 
Check out our full coverage of AAAS 2017.