Science Corner: Readers Who Read this Post also Read…

Photo of an aisle between two book shelves with a person's silhouette in the middle

Science books are apparently being shelved on one side of the political aisle or the other. (Photo by geralt)

I had intended to take a break from topics with obvious political overtones, but as a periodic browser of online bookstores and their linked purchase data, I couldn’t pass up this study of related book purchases and what they reveal about how our politics and our science mingle. The researchers started with two political books with clear party affinity and followed the “Customers who bought this title also bought” links from those two books to all associated titles, and from those titles to their associated titles and so on. They found strong interest in the sciences across the political spectrum; the commentary expresses at least mild surprise at this finding, but given that their study population is customers who purchase multiple books I’d guess they are dealing with a relatively well-educated and well-read cohort. At the same time, there were notable differences in both the specific disciplines of interest to consumers with different political leaning and the types of books chosen within certain disciplines of common interest.

The researchers summarized the findings as a tendency among liberals to prefer books on basic or abstract science while conservatives tend to prefer more applied sciences. Of course, it should be noted there is opportunity to skew interpretation simply by choosing these categories. For example, in this article one of the authors describes the fields preferred by liberals as driven by “curiosity,” a description I wouldn’t exactly call value-neutral or even necessarily accurate as it is possible to be curious about how to achieve a practical result in medicine or engineering. I was also not encouraged by the use of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ as political category labels; I am concerned that our overuse of these arbitrary terms creates or reinforces the impression that we are simply two teams within inscrutable reasoning and motivations. ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are reductive as it is, but they at least suggest something of an ideology that can be understood. ‘Red’ or ‘blue’ voters are simply and unknowably Other. Thus in talking about this work, which I am willing to accept did reveal genuine clusters of books that differed along party lines, we may be inadvertently revealing additional facets of the communication challenges posed by our present political landscape.

Incidentally, I’ve actually explored these online book connections on a much smaller scale for my own personal curiosity; I start with a book I’m interested in and try to find related books. In my case, I’m looking for further reading material and also trying to understand the breadth of material on a given topic. In the future I may need to be more aware of the limitations of this approach in exploring the full range of a topic. I would also add that those related purchases results can differ depending on whether the retailer knows it is you browsing their site or not. So there may be further filtering with potential ideological slants introduced by the algorithms attempting to personalize your shopping experience.

While my personal curiosity about online bookstores initially drew me to the story, there are some practical considerations as well. Going forward with my blog posts, I may not be able to avoid political associations to the degree I might desire. I’m still going to try to cover a range of topics, and I’m still going to have the same personal interests, but I might start to wonder if covering quantum entanglement or biotechnology will be construed politically. Have you ever encountered unexpected political associations or other kinds of unexpected connections in your field?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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    juliereynolds42 commented on April 5, 2017 Reply

    “Curiosity science” is commonly used to talk about basic research that may or may not have a practical application. My research on insect diapause is considered to be “curiosity science” because I want to know how insects survive during the winter in a state of suspended animation. Some day, this research may have a practical application, but that’s not what drives my science.

      Andy Walsh commented on April 5, 2017 Reply

      Interesting; I hadn’t actually encountered that phrase as a distinct category. And I even wrote a paper on mosquito overwintering strategies! Still, in an article for a wide audience and given the specific phrasing, I’m still not sure it was the most helpful quote. But this context makes it a little more understandable why the word might have been chosen.

      In general, if I were a reader who identified strongly as a conservative, I think I would find the discussion of the results mildly off-putting. Not heavily biased — there’s definitely an effort towards balance, but at times the effort seems visible rather than natural.

      Thanks for helping with some additional context.

    juliereynolds42 commented on April 6, 2017 Reply

    The article you link to is a news report of a article that just came out in Nature: Human Behavior yesterday. And there is a known problem with journalists often poorly translating science articles. I can send you a pdf of the original article if you’re interested and don’t have access.

      Andy Walsh commented on April 26, 2017 Reply

      Yes, media coverage is different than primary literature. In this particular case, it was still a direct quote from one of the investigators, but of course even quotes can be removed from context.

      I’m also interested in the way that science is discussed in media and public discourse, which is why I engage with news articles as well as the primary literature. But that does create a tension, since I don’t want to double down on any distortions that do creep into the news coverage. I’ll keep working on finding the right balance.

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