Imagine a new neighbor has moved in next door. He drives a Prius, and you’ve seen him at the local Starbucks sipping a latte. Last night you heard jazz music drifting from his house. Given what you know so far, do you think he’s politically a liberal or a conservative? Now imagine he owns a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, drinks Maxwell House coffee, and listens to country music. Did you change your perception of his political leanings?
As this hypothetical situation illustrates, political polarization in the United States is strong, and that spills over to cultural divisions as well according to Michael W. Macy, Information Science/Sociology. “Liberals and conservatives have different interests in everything from music to vehicles,” he says. Macy and his team at the Social Dynamics Lab explore social patterns using computational models, online laboratory experiments, and data from online networks. The lab studies a wide range of social behavior, everything from hate speech to hockey fights to the lifestyle preferences of liberals versus conservatives in the United States.
Can Science—with Its Facts, Reasoning, and Evidence—Bridge the Gap between Liberals and Conservatives?
In a recent study, Macy and his colleagues looked at whether science can serve as a bridge across the deepening political divide in the United States. “Science is about where the facts lead us,” says Macy. “It’s about reasoning and evidence, the pursuit of truth not political convenience. Given this, one can hope that science could be a public sphere where people who have different points of view could find common ground.”
To test this hypothesis, the researchers looked at books co-purchased by Amazon customers buying political books written by strongly liberal authors (for example, Barack Obama) or strongly conservative authors (for example, Rush Limbaugh). “We found that liberals and conservatives are disproportionately likely to buy books about science, compared to the general public,” says Macy, “but they are not interested in the same science.”
The research showed that liberals tended to buy books in a scientific discipline also purchased by people who don’t buy political books at all and that these books were dispersed throughout all books in the discipline. Conservatives tended to buy books that were disconnected from the rest of the scientific discipline.
“In the case of climatology books, for instance, there is a type of conservative climatology that is off on the side by itself,” says Macy. “Most climatology readers don’t read those books unless they’re conservative. With liberals, their chosen books are not so distinctive. They’re better integrated into the general discipline of climatology. We found this same pattern over and over across many different scientific disciplines.”
The impetus for Macy and his collaborators to carry out the study is the current political polarization and the targeting of science in recent years especially by conservatives. Yet conservative distrust of science is a fairly new phenomenon.
Macy explains, “Before the mid-1980s conservatives had more confidence in science than liberals. Back in the anti-Vietnam, counterculture days, the Left was skeptical of science as part of the establishment. But now, in the era of controversies over things such as the origin of the universe, stem-cell research, and climate change, the situation is reversed. We were interested to see to what extent that reflects a broader or deeper political division about science. Do liberals and conservatives see science as a neutral, independent source of knowledge that’s above politics, or do they gravitate to those parts of science that confirm their existing beliefs? For the most part, we found the latter.”
Macy and his collaborators have some suggestions for how scientists might address the scientific division between those on the Left and those on the Right. “Scientists in their role as instructors need to try to promote a better appreciation of science as a way of pursuing truth wherever it might lead you politically, whether it’s convenient or not,” Macy says. “They need to persuade the broader public of the importance of science outside and above politics rather than just as a tool for advancing a political cause.”
Studying the Lifestyle Choices of Conservatives and Liberals
In another ongoing research project, Macy and his lab are studying the tendency for liberals and conservatives to differ on a wide range of lifestyle choices. The goal is to see if lifestyle choices correlate with political alignment by using data about Twitter co-following and Facebook co-liking.
Using Twitter, they looked at five million users who follow members of the United States Congress. The researchers coded members of congress as liberal or conservative using the politicians’ voting records. Then they were able to identify each user as more likely to be either liberal or conservative depending on which politician they follow. By looking at who or what else these users follow, the researchers can capture a range of lifestyle preferences—from automobiles, to TV shows, to sports.
“We take the way things are in our world as a given—somehow inevitable and natural. It could turn out to be nothing more than accidents.”
“It turns out the political divide is also deeply cultural,” Macy says. Macy found that liberals were disproportionately likely to choose Real Time with Bill Maher as their favorite TV show, while conservatives opted for The Walking Dead. Liberals’ preferred car model was the Toyota Prius, although their favorite car manufacturer was Tesla. Conservatives favored the Harley-Davidson hog. Liberals rocked to jazz and R&B. Conservatives listened to Christian and country-western music.
“We noticed through all our studies that these preferences are often not about something that directly connects with liberal or conservative views,” Macy says. “Take the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. There’s no particular reason why having two wheels on a vehicle should appeal more to conservatives. In fact, motorcycles have better gas mileage than automobiles. So why are conservatives for Harley-Davidson? If you look at liberals favoring Tesla, you could say it obviously symbolizes environmental concerns. But on the other hand, if conservatives had been more interested in Tesla, we could have focused on the Tesla’s speed. It can go from 0 to 60 in less than three seconds. So we could have spun that as the NASCAR appeal. We can always find something to explain why a preference might have a connection to a political agenda, but we might just be reading into it.”
To look deeper into the origins of cultural preference, the Social Dynamics Lab is beginning an online experiment in which groups of subjects will be assigned to digital worlds where they will interact with their group members on a host of issues. There will be no interaction between worlds.
“We’re looking at how peoples’ opinions are shaped by the opinions of their network neighbors,” Macy says. “We want to see if the consensus that develops in each world is similar across worlds.”
The lab has done a pilot experiment. So far they’ve found tentative evidence that people within each world end up agreeing with people similar to themselves, but the agreement they reach on an issue could be the exact opposite of what their counterparts in another world decide. “For instance, older people in one world might think A and the younger people, B,” Macy says. “But in the next world over, the older people think B and the younger people think A.”
Macy sees this research as shedding light on an epistemological issue: How do we know that something is true? “We take the way things are in our world as a given—somehow inevitable and natural,” he says. “It could turn out to be nothing more than accidents. That’s the hypothesis we’re testing. The accident could be that the process of social influence is like a garden path. The first step down that path determines where the path is going to lead. If that first adopter takes a random first step, then the overall path could be random. The path is very strong, it’s statistically significant, and yet it could be largely an accident.”