Aug. 5, 2022 – Thanks to science, we know that the world is not flat, that the Earth revolves around the sun (not the other way around), and that germs cause infectious diseases. So why is scientific skepticism a a global phenomenon – and one that seems to be getting worse, if the crazy things you saw your friend posting on social media this morning are any indication?
Dr. Aviva Philipp-Müller, one of the report’s co-authors, says finding answers and restoring widespread trust in science may be more important now than ever.
“If you jump to conclusions by instinct or listening to people who have no knowledge of a subject, you can believe almost anything,” she says. “And sometimes it can be dangerous to society when people believe things that are wrong. We have seen this in real time, even some people have rejected COVID-19 vaccines not by any scientific reason, but by unscientific means.”
Supporting Philipp-Müller’s thesis: A recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that approx 234,000 deaths from COVID could have been prevented if vaccination rates were higher.
Four reasons people reject science
In their assessment, Phillip-Müller and her team sought to “understand why people might not be convinced by scientific findings and what might make a person more likely to follow anti-scientific forces and voices.”
They identified four recurring themes.
1. The people refuse to believe the messenger.
Call it the “I don’t listen to anything on CNN (or Fox News)” explanation. If people view science communicators as unreliable, biased, lacking expertise, or as having an agenda, they will more easily dismiss the information.
“When people learn something, it will come from a source,” he says Spike WS Lee, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Toronto and co-author of the paper. “Some properties of a source can determine whether a person will be persuaded by it.”
2. Pride breeds prejudice.
You might think this is the opposite of the belief of the famous 17th century, the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes. Where he famously said, “I think, therefore I am,” this principle shows that for some it is, “I am, therefore I think . . .”
People who build their identities around labels or who identify with a certain social group may reject information that seems threatening to that identity.
“We’re not a blank slate,” says Lee. “We have certain identities that we care about.” And we’re willing to protect those identities by believing things that seem disproved by data. This is especially true when one feels part of a group that holds anti-science attitudes or feels that their viewpoints have been underrepresented or exploited by science.
3. It’s hard to defeat long-held beliefs.
Consciously or not, many of us live by the famous refrain of the rock band Journey: “Don’t stop believing.” When information contradicts what a person has believed to be true, right, or important, it is easier for them to simply reject the new information. This is especially true when dealing with something that one has believed in for a long time.
“People don’t usually update their beliefs, so when there’s new information on the horizon, people tend to be cautious about it,” says Lee.
4. Science doesn’t always match how people learn.
An ever-discussed thought experiment asks, “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one hears it, does it make a sound?” Rephrased for science, the question might ask, “If really important information is buried in a book that no one ever reads , will this affect people?”
A challenge facing scientists today is that their work is complex and therefore often presented in densely written journals or complex statistical tables. This resonates with other scientists, but is less likely to sway those who do not understand p-values and other statistical concepts. And when new information is presented in a way that doesn’t fit a person’s thinking style, they are more likely to reject it.
Winning the war against anti-science attitudes
The paper’s authors agree: being pro-science doesn’t mean blindly trusting everything science says. “This can also be dangerous,” says Philipp-Müller. Instead, “it’s about a desire to better understand the world and an openness to scientific discovery revealed through accurate, valid methods.”
If you’re among those who want a better, science-backed understanding of the world around you, she and Lee say there are steps you can take to stem the tide of anti-science. “Many different people in society can help us solve this problem,” says Philipp-Müller.
scientists, who can take a warmer approach when communicating their findings and do so in a way that is more inclusive to a wider audience.
“It can be really hard,” says Philipp-Müller, “but it means using language that’s not super jargon or won’t alienate people. And I think it’s the duty of journalists to help.” (Duly noted.)
The paper’s authors also advise scientists to consider new ways to share their findings with the public. “The primary source of scientific information for most people is not the scientists,” says Lee. “If we want to shape people’s receptivity, we have to start with the voices that people care about and that have the most impact.”
This list can include pastors and political leaders, TV and radio personalities, and—like it or not—social media influencers.
educators, meaning that anyone who interacts with children and young minds (including parents) can help by teaching children scientific reasoning skills. “Thus when [those young people] encounter scientific information or misinformation, they can better analyze how the conclusion was reached and determine whether it is valid.”
we all who can counter anti-science through the surprisingly effective technique of not being a fool. If you hear someone defending an anti-scientific view—perhaps at your Thanksgiving dinner table—arguing or telling that person they’re stupid won’t help.
Instead, Phillip-Müller advises, “Try to find common ground and a shared identity with someone who shares views with an anti-science group.”
Having a calm, respectful conversation about their point of view can help them overcome their resistance or even admit that they have fallen into one of the four patterns described above.