Scientists, in addition to their methodological stances, hold a whole array of sociopolitical views. Moreover, scientists develop epistemic attitudes that resemble political ones. For instance, they can be more or less epistemically tolerant towards opposing scientific theories or follow leading authorities in their disciplines with different levels of trust. The legitimate question arises whether non-epistemic attitudes of scientists, such as moral values, reflect on their epistemic attitudes and general beliefs about science. In other words, one could argue that non-epistemic values influence the scientists’ views on the relationship between a scientific hypothesis and the evidence, or their perception of the scientific method (cf. Colombo et al. 2016).
The debate about the interplay between sociopolitical and epistemic values of scientists can be traced to classical contributions in the history of philosophy of science. For instance, Karl Popper urged scientists to remain epistemically open since “only if criticism meets resistance can we learn the full force of a critical argument” (Popper 1994: 92). There is a connection between Popper’s epistemic and sociopolitical views. Popper’s idea of piecemeal social engineering (e.g., 1945a: 139, 1957: 66–67) – a gradual improvement of public policies through trial and error – can be traced to his view that scientific theories are fallible, i.e., that they can be falsified and abandoned. Moreover, Popper (1945a, b) argued that this can only be achieved in a society that is open to critical discussions and acts upon them in the same way in which scientists should be epistemically open for critical arguments. The self-declared epistemological anarchist about methodological rules Paul Feyerabend (1975/1993) defended an open and critical attitude towards the scientific method arguing in favor of competing methods and values in science and criticizing the blind trust in epistemic authority. For Feyerabend, his epistemic and methodological attitudes were closely connected to his sociopolitical views. For example, according to Martin (2019), Feyerabend was inclined to argue that only theoretical pluralism, including pseudoscientific endeavors, can oppose the “stifling conformism” of contemporary science and epistemology after he had read Mill’s On Liberty. Furthermore, Martin (2019) claims that Feyerabend’s concerns were how to allow for the views of the minority to exist in science and how to control, so-to-say, the epistemic tyranny of majority beliefs.
Some notable recent contributions defend a pluralist scientific method and an open epistemic attitude in science. Straßer et al. (2015) introduced the concept of epistemic tolerance in the context of scientific disagreement, which is in line with authors who enlist epistemic tolerance as an epistemic virtue allowing for a diversity of methods and promoting scientific progress (e.g., Chang 2012; Longino 2002). Moreover, probability models and case studies from history of science support the exploration of less likely hypotheses as epistemically beneficial for the scientific community (Kitcher 1990, 1993). Kitcher (1990) argues that the optimal distribution of cognitive labor requires the investigation of diverse and opposing theories with the underlying assumption that the exploration of these views has a scientific value. Similarly, Strevens (2003) showed epistemic advantages of exploring diverse hypotheses using formal modeling. Finally, Zollman’s formal results show the importance of cognitive diversity for the accuracy of the scientific consensus and emphasize the need for openness towards rivaling theories from the perspective of the scientific community as a whole (Zollman 2007, 2010).
Epistemic authoritarianism is explored in the field of political philosophy and represents the tendency to accept the epistemic authority in the normative field (e.g., Estlund 1992). In the context of the scientific community, epistemic authoritarianism is linked to the rigid acceptance of dominant scientific paradigms and approaches in a specific field and leading authorities that dictate them. Once an epistemically authoritarian scientist adopts prevailing beliefs, her tendency to question or revise them will be limited. Such authoritarianism is the basis for other epistemic vices, such as epistemic conformity, intellectual dogmatism, closed-mindedness, or learning myopia (cf. Battaly 2014). Epistemic tolerance and epistemic authoritarianism directly influence the researchers’ decisions about rivaling theories in their field. Epistemically tolerant scientists will not instantly dismiss opposing views, bold hypotheses, and novel approaches. Researchers who are skeptical about the general inductive method of science will also take into account the limitations of science. These notions can also be understood in the light of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science. On the one hand, Kuhn (1977c; 1977/2000) acknowledged the importance of the rational disagreement of researchers when it comes to choosing a scientific theory. On the other hand, Kuhn (1977a, b, c) noticed how the interpretation of data and the evaluation of hypotheses critically depend on scientists’ convergence on a common set of assumptions during the periods of normal science, i.e., periods when scientists work within one paradigm. Shared values, shared assumptions and following established research paths – in short, moving within a scientific paradigm – are indispensable for scientists’ daily work. Kuhn (e.g., Kuhn 1962/1970: 1, 137, Kuhn 1977a) also critically explained that textbooks during normal science mainly present the dominant views and sometimes even rewrite the history in favor of dominant paradigms. These textbooks influence the education and formation of junior researchers and make them less critical of dominant views (e.g., Kuhn 1962/1970: 5, 167).
The question of how one’s sociopolitical views, such as the level of conservatism, could influence one’s epistemic stances was also raised from the perspective of social psychology. It has been argued that the underlying basis of conservatism is both cognitive and motivational (Jost et al. 2003). As such, it can be found in one’s desire to arrive at a firm belief or understanding on a given topic, as opposed to uncertainty. In this sense, epistemic motives (i.e., intolerance of ambiguity, closed-mindedness, uncertainty avoidance, need for order, structure, and closure) are assumed to govern how people acquire beliefs, whether on sociopolitical or scientific topics (Jost et al. 2003). Thus, we were interested in finding out whether epistemic motives such as epistemic tolerance and authoritarianism are related to sociopolitical views as well.
More recently, Rutjens et al. (2018) showed that beliefs about science and pseudoscience depend, among other things, such as religiosity and moral convictions, on political conservatism. However, one could object that, though these findings are relevant when analyzing laypersons’ evaluation of scientific output, scientists can be regarded as epistemically privileged. Therefore, one could expect that the epistemic attitudes they obtain after years of training are superior and less sullied by their political views, than the epistemic attitudes of their students who have just started the scientific learning process. Indeed, much of the traditional philosophy of science (cf. Kuhn 1977c) emphasizes the difference between epistemic and non-epistemic values, i.e., the very assessment of scientific hypotheses and data should be based on values pertaining to the pursuit of truth rather than political or economic values. However, in the contemporary literature a different accent is placed on the discussion about the role of non-epistemic values in science (e.g., Douglas 2000, 2009; Elliott 2011). According to Douglas (2000, 2009), non-epistemic values play an indirect role by providing scientists with the means to decide what counts as sufficient evidence, whereas the direct role of the values of scientists amounts to finding reasons why a theory should be adopted. Douglas argues that the inductive risk is present not only at the “external” stage of theory acceptance but also at the “internal” stages of methodology choice, data gathering, and data interpretation (cf. 2000: 566–577). She offers a new image of the scientist, now portrayed as an active and responsible agent whose reasoning should never be detached from ethical and social influences.
Straßer et al. (2015:113) remarked that the literature in social epistemology “lacks a proper account of the epistemically appropriate response scientists should have towards opposing positions in peer disagreements.” On the contrary, we think that the first step towards such an account is an inquiry into the epistemic responses scientists do have towards opposing positions in their field and towards the scientific method in general. Accordingly, our research goal was to empirically investigate the interplay between epistemic attitudes, i.e., epistemic tolerance, epistemic authoritarianism, and skepticism about the scientific method (Fig. 1). The sociopolitical attitudes that we measured independently were the participants’ level of conservatism and their political orientation. Finally, we investigated the beliefs that researchers have about science and pseudoscience. In particular, we were interested in their degrees of belief in astrology and their tendency to question the theory of evolution.
Research Aims and Hypotheses
Since the epistemic attitudes that we were interested in, i.e., epistemic tolerance, epistemic authoritarianism, and skepticism towards the scientific method, have not been empirically measured before, one of our main research aims was to reasonably well operationalize these philosophical notions by proposing scales for measuring them. Given the theoretical background of these notions, we expected them to be distinct but related to the non-epistemic attitudes and beliefs that we tested (Fig. 1). Thus, the nature of our pioneering study was exploratory.
In order to construct and test our hypotheses clearly and unambiguously, we have provided quantitative effect size predictions in the form of the smallest effect size of significance for each hypothesis. The quantification of the hypotheses faced several challenges. One obstacle lies in the nature of the measures used in this research. Namely, the measures of the constructs are in the form of 5-point Likert scales, meaning that there is a problem in translating the quantitative differences into something meaningful in the real-world (Anvari and Lakens 2019). This is even more challenging because there is a limited amount of research on similar topics and no meta-analyses that could be used as guidelines for determining the expected effect sizes. Nonetheless, we have provided theoretical motivation for our hypotheses, as well as quantitative effect size predictions. These predictions were, when possible, based on results from past research on related constructs and several expected effect sizes were based on general statistical recommendations as no similar studies have been conducted thus far. Expected effect sizes were specified in the form of calculated indices of effect size (i.e., Cohen d) rather than absolute effect sizes as these measurements (i.e., Likert scales) have no intrinsic meaning (Sullivan and Feinn 2012). We have taken the recommended effect size of Cohen d = .4 as a reference point, as this is the average effect size in psychology (Brysbaert 2019), with values greater than d = .5 indicating moderate effect size (Cohen 1988). We have also calculated the power of the tests used to assess our hypotheses with the G*Power software. The motivation behind this lies in the fact that many studies in the field of behavioral sciences are underpowered (Sedlmeier and Gigerenzer 1989; Ioannidis 2005; Open Science Collaboration 2015).
As the first hypothesis, we wanted to trace a possible relationship between conservatism and epistemic attitudes. Since an overview of the psychological literature showed that epistemic motives are significantly related to social conservatism (Jost et al. 2003), it was possible that these epistemic motives also partially constitute epistemic authoritarianism and epistemic tolerance. We estimated the correlation size based on a negative correlation of r = −.11 between intellectual humility in the sociopolitical domain and conservatism (Krumrei-Mancuso & Newman 2020). These coefficients correspond with Cohen’s (1988) definition of a small effect, that could be expected in this type of study design, i.e., a non-experimental exploratory study that operationalized novel constructs. Thus, explicitly stated, we postulated the following hypotheses.
Hypothesis 1a. The correlation between epistemic authoritarianism and conservatism will be positive, and at least be of the size Pearson’s r = .10.
Hypothesis 1b. The correlation between epistemic tolerance and conservatism will be negative, and at least be of the size Pearson’s r = −.10.
Secondly, our study aimed at investigating whether skepticism towards the scientific method is more typical for right-wing researchers, or perhaps both ends of the political spectrum show certain similarities. For this reason, we proposed two competing hypotheses. The first hypothesis postulates that right-wing researchers will be more skeptical towards the scientific method. This hypothesis was made having in mind related research showing that rightists have a tendency of questioning some important scientific claims such as climate change (e.g., Dunlap and McCright 2008) or the safety of vaccines (e.g., Hamilton et al. 2015). On the other hand, in line with Feyerabend’s argumentation against a unique scientific method that is related to his left political ideas (cf. Martin 2019), the second hypothesis states that leftists would also express skepticism towards the scientific method. However, this skepticism would reflect their tendency to question the currently established scientific practices, but not the scientific endeavor en général, while rightists would show skepticism towards scientific methods and results altogether. Formally expressed, we assumed the following.
Hypothesis 2a. There will be at an effect of political orientation, with right-wing researchers being more skeptical towards the scientific method than left-wing researchers, with the effect size of at least of d = .4.
Hypothesis 2b. There will be no difference between left and right-wing researchers on the value of skepticism towards the scientific method, with both groups scoring higher than M = 3, i.e., the neutral point on the Likert scale.
As for the participant’s scientific field, we assumed that researchers working in natural sciences would tend to doubt the scientific method less and to be more epistemically authoritarian than those working in social sciences because of the nature of their methodologies. Besides obvious differences, viz. that natural scientists work in technologically equipped and highly specialized laboratories, and that most of the social scientists, especially those working in the humanities (e.g., philosophy, history, ethnology, linguistics, philology, etc.) are using rather different methods (conceptual analysis, historical method, synoptic method, discourse analysis, etc.), one can also trace differences in the way of conducting and publishing original research. According to Kuhn's (1962/1970) famous discussion about paradigmatic and pre-paradigmatic science, there is a difference between sciences that already have a developed paradigm under which their research is conducted, while in the pre-paradigmatic state a plurality of competing approaches exists alongside each other. Big developments like Darwin’s theory shift a science from the pre-paradigmatic to the paradigmatic stage (Kuhn 1962/1970). According to this theory, humanities and social science are still in the pre-paradigmatic stage. Following Kuhn, one can expect differences in responses between natural and social scientists on the epistemic tolerance, epistemic authoritarianism, and skepticism towards the scientific scales.
Moreover, Jaffe (2014) offered a quantitative analysis of bibliometric data of scientific publications thereby accounting for different research strategies in natural and social sciences. Thus, Jaffe brought to light that natural scientists adhere to a “follower” strategy resulting in publications with multiple authors, a high level of international collaboration, as well as a high citation rate from the colleagues publishing in the same target journals; whereas social scientists seem to care more about originality than following in the footsteps of already tackled topics, so they end up with publications characterized by high levels of self-citations, a low citation rate in a wide range of journals and a low level of international collaboration. Jaffe’s results are in line with bibliometric trends already reported in papers tracing the co-authorship patterns such as Frame and Carpenter (1979), Luukkonen (1992), and Persson et al. (2004), as well as more recently in Parish et al. (2018). These studies also indicate that greater international research collaboration has been observed to coincide with elevated citation impact and to represent a vital characteristic of the “hard science”, most notably physics, medicine, and biology. To sum up, when it comes to the relationship between the scientific field and the epistemic attitudes, we postulated the following.
Hypothesis 3a. There will be at least an effect of d = .4 of the scientific field on the value of the epistemic authoritarianism scale, with researchers from natural sciences scoring higher than the ones from social sciences.
Hypothesis 3b. There will be at least an effect of d = .4 of the scientific field on the value of epistemic tolerance, with researchers from social sciences scoring higher than the ones from natural sciences.
Hypothesis 3c. There will be at least an effect of d = .4 of the scientific field on the value of skepticism towards the scientific method, with researchers from social sciences scoring higher than the ones in natural sciences.
Also, we postulated the career stage of researchers as relevant for their epistemic attitudes and assumed that senior researchers would be less skeptical about the scientific method than junior ones since they have received more training, their professional experience is more enriched with age, and their theoretical views are refined. Closely related to this, is the assumption concerning the degree of epistemic tolerance of junior researchers. Given their young age and susceptibility to various theoretical influences, we expected that they would be less dogmatic and more inclined to reassess dominant paradigms in their disciplines. Moreover, we assumed that epistemic authoritarianism is related to the time spent researching in a specific science field following its dominant paradigms. Thus, we started from the following two assumptions.
Hypothesis 4a. There will be at least an effect of d = .4 of career stage on the value of epistemic authoritarianism with senior researchers being more authoritarian than junior researchers.
Hypothesis 4b. There will be at least an effect of d = .4 of career stage on the value of skepticism towards the scientific method, with senior researchers being less skeptical than junior researchers.
Lastly, we set out to examine the difference between senior and junior researchers concerning their stances towards pseudoscience in general. Research in social psychology explored inclinations of laymen to believe in pseudoscientific statements and question science (e.g., Rutjens et al. 2018). We wanted to explore whether there is a difference in the degree of belief in pseudoscientific claims between senior and junior researchers, assuming that more experienced researchers will question science less. Thus, we postulated the following hypotheses about the beliefs in science.
Hypothesis 5a. There will be at least an effect of d = .4 of career stage on astrological beliefs, with junior researchers holding higher beliefs than senior researchers.
Hypothesis 5b. There will be at least an effect of d = .4 of career stage on beliefs about evolution, with junior researchers questioning evolution more than seniors.
In order to test these hypotheses, we conducted an online survey and explored the interplay between the epistemic and the political attitudes of scientists. We propose scales for measuring the level of their 1) epistemic tolerance, 2) epistemic authoritarianism, and 3) skepticism towards the scientific method. Moreover, to investigate the relationship between epistemic attitudes and sociopolitical views, we asked scientists to position themselves on the political spectrum and included a separate scale for measuring the level of their conservatism. Finally, in order to better assess participants’ general tendency to relativize science, we included measures of their beliefs in science and pseudoscience.