Project focus: Based at Science, Media, and the Public Research Group at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Nicole will work to understand interactions between scientific information and human values in polarized cultures and examine how the science of science communication can help develop more effective strategies for communities of practice to connect with conservative and/or religious audiences.
Nicole Krause is a social scientist in the Life Sciences Communication department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where her Civic Science Fellowship project asks: How can we use the “science of science communication” to develop more effective strategies to meaningfully connect with conservative, religious, and rural audiences? Nicky’s work focuses on communication dynamics surrounding emerging science and technology, especially topics that have complex ethical, legal, and societal implications, such as human gene editing or artificial intelligence. Her research examines ways to minimize forms of biased information processing that can inhibit the deliberation of such topics among people with different value systems and identities. Nicky also researches misinformation as an aspect of science communication environments, including the related topic of trust in science. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Communication, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, New Media & Society, Public Opinion Quarterly, and Journal of Risk Research, among other outlets. Outside of academia, Nicky has worked as a researcher, designer, and project manager in the healthcare communication and software industries, as well as on civic technology initiatives at 18F, a technology consultancy within the federal government.
1. What was the focus of your work as a Civic Science Fellow? What did you do?
My project addresses the topic of polarization related to science, with a specific emphasis on understanding why rural, religious, and politically conservative groups are sometimes “misaligned” with science. A key focus of my work so far has been to examine existing answers to this question in relevant academic literature and to identify underdeveloped areas that may be limiting what we understand about the nature of science polarization and possible solutions. The results of this effort are a series of in-progress research papers that outline and begin to empirically address three aspects of science polarization phenomena that require more focused research attention and action: 1) Theoretical and empirical attention to “science-aligned” social groups, as they engage in processes of social comparison and contrast with science-misaligned groups; 2) Examination of how forms of support for science can contribute to social intolerance or possibly inhibit productive science deliberation when it reaches the level of a moral conviction; and 3) Greater examination of “moderate” groups who exist outside of “pro-science” vs. “anti-science” discourse, and who can be “pushed away” from science engagement to avoid social conflict or bickering. My papers demonstrate the empirical value of filling these research gaps by drawing on data from a national survey I fielded in February 2022. In the remaining six months of this fellowship, I will be using data from a second survey to work with partner organizations in order to identify avenues for productive messaging that can bridge science divides among the relevant groups.
2. How do you hope your work as a Fellow will influence the future—for yourself, an organization, a community, or a field?
I hope that my work can complicate some existing conversations about science polarization that have characterized group divides in science issue contexts in epistemological terms and which have focused on groups who are skeptical of the “facts” or who are otherwise motivated to reject the scientific consensus. While there is merit to much of this work, and while some of its insights are well-rooted in (social) psychology, it is not the only lens by which we could explain science polarization, and a failure to broaden our horizons would be not only myopic but also perilous. If we conceive of science polarization (even implicitly) as divides between people who believe the facts and people who don’t, it can be difficult to imagine that someone can “believe the facts” too much, which means we will be less likely to ask about the beliefs and behaviors of people who tend in a normatively desirable direction—i.e., people who align with science. As some polls indicate that trust in science is spiking to historically high levels among some groups, and as my own data are showing that some subgroups now believe it is immoral to distrust scientists, it will be important to ask whether these attitudes are democratically desirable and what role ideological shifts among science supporters might be playing in science polarization. By suggesting this, I don’t mean to “blame” ardent science supporters for science polarization. I am saying we need data and that we should be more critically reflexive about science alignment.
3. What’s one insight you’d share from your work as a Civic Science Fellow?
My work has shown that, when using Independents as a reference, Democrat identification is a strong, positive predictor of trust in science, while Republican identification has no effect, providing some evidence that gaps in “trust in science” among partisans could be usefully explained by increasing support for science among Democrats, more so than declines among Republicans. To many, this is possibly an unsurprising finding, and it is consistent with some previous work. However, what I found interesting is that divergent effects across the partisan groups do appear—i.e., partisans’ attitudes do move in opposite directions—when Americans are asked whether they agree that it is immoral to distrust scientists. When the question is not about a willingness to trust scientists but rather about the moralization of trust in scientists, then Democrats and Republicans really are in conflict. To me, this suggests that some of our most pressing science polarization problems might not be epistemological questions of whether, for example, conservatives are refusing to accept the validity or legitimacy of scientists’ truth-claims. Instead, the locus of disagreement might have more to do with disputes over the value of science in society and/or whether it is a moral imperative to support it.