Hopelessly Biased? An Attempt at Averting Motivated Numeracy in the Interpretation of Science


  • Digvijay Chand Yaduka University of Vienna


There are two competing accounts for why certain topics with overwhelming scientific evidence - such as climate change, evolution, GMOs, etc. - fail to generate a consensus in the public. Science Comprehension Thesis (SCT) attributes this to the lack of scientific literacy and posits that people with greater cognitive ability should converge in their interpretation of polarizing scientific information. Cultural Cognition Thesis (CCT) claims that people with greater cognitive ability use it to defend and justify their existing beliefs - referred to as motivated reasoning - and should diverge in their interpretation of such information. Depicting polarizing information in a tabular, difficult-to-solve covariance-detection problem has resulted in evidence for CCT [1] while utilizing easier tasks has produced evidence in favor of SCT [2], which indicates that using easier tasks can help avert motivated reasoning. It is also known that visual/iconic depictions of apolitical covariance-detection problems are easier to solve [3]. This leads to the question: can motivated reasoning be reduced by using an iconic version of the polarizing covariance-detection problem instead of a tabular version?

To answer this question 400 adult Slovaks were randomly allocated to a tabular or iconic version of the covariance-detection problem about the impact of Muslim immigration on crime rates, a polarizing topic. The first hypothesis (H1) was that the iconic version was easier than the tabular version. The CCT-consistent H2 was that polarization will increase with increasing numeracy - a measure of cognitive ability - for the tabular version. The SCT-consistent H3 was that polarization will decrease with increasing numeracy for the iconic version.

The responses revealed a general bias against Muslim immigrants. Surprisingly, there was no evidence to support any of the hypotheses. The failure to substantiate H1 implies that either (a) the experimental manipulation was ineffective, or (b) it was insufficient to overcome bias. The inability to validate H2 raises questions about the (a) polarizing effect of Muslim immigration in the sample, and (b) replicability of previous findings [1]. The lack of evidence for H3 leaves the door open for further research into experimental manipulations that can help avert motivated reasoning in the interpretation of polarizing scientific information.


[1] D. M. Kahan, E. Peters, E. C. Dawson, and P. Slovic, “Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government,” Behavioural Public Policy, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 54–86, 2017.

[2] G. Pennycook and D. G. Rand, “Lazy, not biased: Susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning,” Cognition, vol. 188, pp. 39–50, 2019. 

[3] M. Sirota, L. Kostovičová, and M. Juanchich, “The effect of Iconicity of visual displays on statistical reasoning: Evidence in favor of the null hypothesis,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 961–968, 2014.