Measuring Scientific Curiosity

Why it matters now more than ever.

Earlier this week, Janet Coffey published a piece on the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation website explaining the foundation’s thinking behind funding Science Learning.

At any age, puzzlements and curiosities propel our efforts to learn science. Unfortunately, too often, these drivers fall way to facts and information. “Science” becomes a noun, a collection of information, rather than a verb, something that we actively do to make sense of the world. Of course, science is both — it is our search for understanding and the products we discover along the way. Both are important, as is understanding how they relate.

In our Science Learning portfolio, we seek occasions, approaches and models that help bring science to people in ways that capture the wonder of nature as well as the excitement that comes from asking questions and figuring things out.

[Disclosure: OpenROV and OpenExplorer are part of the Science Learning portfolio.]

Science learning is often confused with STEM, which aims to increase science literacy, or science communication, which aims to make research popular and communicable. As Janet has defined it, and I have come to understand, science learning is about emboldening curiosity. Dan Kaman and his colleagues at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale published an important paper last year outlining a similar idea: scientific curiosity, which they define as “a general disposition, variable in intensity across persons, that reflects the motivation to seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure.”

He, too, argues that scientific curiosity is markedly different from science literacy or doing science for a specific goal, like doing well in school. It’s the pursuit of knowledge as its own reward.

The idea of measuring curiosity has been tried before, in generational waves of research, without much success. It’s hard to do. But Kahan’s results suggest it’s worth the effort, as it seems that scientific curiosity directly counteracts the effects of our filter bubble, Fake News culture, or what Kahan calls politically motivated reasoning.

Past research involving science curiosity has been hampered by the absence of a psychometrically valid measure of this disposition. Our ongoing research project on science-filmmaking suggests that it is possible to construct a valid science curiosity instrument, however, if one is sufficiently concrete about its focus, avoids social desirability effects, and does not rely exclusively on self-report measures. Surprisingly, a disposition measured by such an instrument seems to counteract biases in political information processing. The data presented in this paper suggest that science curiosity, unlike other dispositions integral to science comprehension, seems to counteract rather than aggravate the signature characteristics of politically motivated reasoning

The metrics matter. There’s a reason we’ve been able to make so much progress in the production of scientific knowledge. We have a clear way to measure it: published scientific research. And there’s a reason that science communication repeatedly comes up short when it comes to actually changing minds. It’s using media-based measurements: impressions, views, television ratings. We’re missing the most important part of the puzzle because we’ve been unable to effectively articulate it.

If we knew how to measure scientific curiosity, we could manage it — we could aim for it. We could be more effective in communicating the scientific research and results that matter, across political and cultural boundaries. Kahan’s work suggests it’s possible to create this type of instrument. We intend to try.

Entrepreneur and writer working at the intersection of science, conservation, and technology.

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