The Partisan Brain: How Dissonant Science Messages Lead Conservatives and Liberals to (Dis)Trust Science

Erik C. Nisbet, Kathryn E. Cooper, R. Kelly Garrett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

275 Scopus citations


There has been deepening concern about political polarization in public attitudes toward the scientific community. The “intrinsic thesis” attributes this polarization to psychological deficiencies among conservatives as compared to liberals. The “contextual thesis” makes no such claims about inherent psychological differences between conservatives and liberals, but rather points to interacting institutional and psychological factors as the forces driving polarization. We evaluate the evidence for both theses in the context of developing and testing a theoretical model of audience response to dissonant science communication. Conducting a national online experiment (N = 1,500), we examined audience reactions to both conservative-dissonant and liberal-dissonant science messages and consequences for trust in the scientific community. Our results suggest liberals and conservatives alike react negatively to dissonant science communication, resulting in diminished trust of the scientific community. We discuss how our findings link to the larger debate about political polarization of science and implications for science communicators.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)36-66
Number of pages31
JournalAnnals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 14 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • affect
  • institutional trust
  • motivated reasoning
  • persuasion
  • political polarization
  • science communication

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences


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