Millions of online book co-purchases reveal partisan differences in the consumption of science

Abstract

Passionate disagreements about climate change, stem cell research and evolution raise concerns that science has become a new battlefield in the culture wars. We used data derived from millions of online co-purchases as a behavioural indicator for whether shared interest in science bridges political differences or selective attention reinforces existing divisions. Findings reveal partisan preferences both within and across scientific disciplines. Across fields, customers for liberal or ‘blue’ political books prefer basic science (for example, physics, astronomy and zoology), whereas conservative or ‘red’ customers prefer applied and commercial science (for example, criminology, medicine and geophysics). Within disciplines, ‘red’ books tend to be co-purchased with a narrower subset of science books on the periphery of the discipline. We conclude that the political left and right share an interest in science in general, but not science in particular. This underscores the need for research into remedies that can attenuate selective exposure to ‘convenient truth’, renew the capacity for science to inform political debate and temper partisan passions.

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Figure 1: Visualization of the co-purchase network among liberal, conservative and scientific books.
Figure 2: Comparisons of political relevance, polarization and alignment between science and non-science books.
Figure 3: Comparisons of political alignment across scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines.
Figure 4: Location of red and blue political books within the network of disciplinary books to which they are linked.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful for comments from participants in seminars at Microsoft Research–New England, MSR-NY, GESIS-Koln, University of Michigan School of Information, Duke University DNAC, the first International Conference on Computational Social Science, and the Computational Social Science Summit at Northwestern. We acknowledge funding from the John Templeton Foundation to the Metaknowledge Network, NSF SES 1303533, SES 1226483, SES 1158803, National Research Foundation of Korea NRF-2013S1A3A2055285 and Air Force Office of Scientific Research FA9550-15-1-0162, and computation support from the Open Science Data Cloud. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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All authors designed the research and drafted the paper. F.S., Y.S. and F.A.D. gathered and analysed the data.

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Correspondence to James A. Evans or Michael W. Macy.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Shi, F., Shi, Y., Dokshin, F. et al. Millions of online book co-purchases reveal partisan differences in the consumption of science. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0079 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0079

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