Research highlight

Conservatives and liberals read different science literature

Nature Human Behaviour

April 4, 2017

Purchasers of conservative or liberal political books in the United States are equally interested in books on science, but not in the same types of science, reports a paper published online in Nature Human Behaviour this week. The analysis of millions of online book purchases found a stark difference in consumer choices, with purchasers of liberal books preferring books on basic sciences, such as physics and astronomy, and purchasers of conservative books preferring applied sciences, like criminology and geophysics.

‘Echo chambers’ or ‘information bubbles’, whereby people are exposed to a narrow range of information that aligns only with their existing political beliefs, are a growing concern in political science because of their potential to limit understanding between people who identify with opposing political parties (cross-partisan understanding).

Michael Macy, James Evans and colleagues present one of the few studies to look at this problem outside of the lab, by analysing purchase histories from two of the world’s largest online book retailers. They construct a co-purchase network to analyse which science books are purchased alongside ‘red’ (conservative) or ‘blue’ (liberal) political books. The authors find not only a clear difference between interests in different scientific subjects overall, but that conservatives and liberals choose to read different books within the same subjects.

The authors conclude that their findings underscore the need for further research into remedies that can diminish selective exposure to echo chambers/information bubbles, renew the capacity for science to inform political debate, and temper partisan passions.

In an accompanying News & Views, Toby Bolsen writes: "The behavioural patterns identified in the present study are consistent with broader concerns that partisans’ selection of distinct sources of scientific and political information may lead to echo chambers - for instance, if individuals selectively expose themselves to the views of like-minded others who reinforce and strengthen their own views."

doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0079

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