August 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 microbes cause infectious diseases. So why is scientific skepticism a global phenomenon—and it seems to be getting worse, if the crazy stuff you saw your friend posting on social media this morning is any indication?
In a recently published paper, social psychology researchers tried to answer exactly these questions. What makes some people reject science? And how can trust in science be restored?
Dr Aviva Philipp-Muller, one of the paper’s co-authors, says finding answers and restoring widespread trust in science may be more important than ever.
“If you come to conclusions through instinct or listening to people who have no knowledge of a subject, you can believe anything,” she says. “And sometimes it can be dangerous for society when people believe things that are wrong. We have seen this in real time, as some people have refused vaccines against COVID-19 not for any scientific reason, but in unscientific ways.”
Backing up Philipp-Muller’s claim: A recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 234,000 deaths from COVID could have been prevented if vaccination rates had been higher.
Four reasons why people reject science
In their assessment, Philipp-Muller and her team sought to “understand why people cannot be persuaded by scientific findings and why a person would be more likely to follow anti-scientific forces and voices.”
They identified four recurring themes.
1. People refuse to believe the messenger.
Call this the “I don’t listen to anything on CNN (or Fox News)” explanation. If people view science communicators as untrustworthy, biased, lacking expertise, or having an agenda, they will more easily dismiss the information.
“When people learn something, it will come from a source,” says Spike W.S. Lee, PhD, a social psychologist from the University of Toronto and co-author of the paper. “Certain properties of a source can determine whether a person will be convinced of it.”
You might consider this the opposite of the beliefs of the famous 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes. Where he famously said, “I think, therefore I am,” this principle indicates that for some it is, “I am, therefore I think…”
People who build their identity around labels or who identify with a certain social group may reject information that seems to threaten 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 to be disproved by the data. This is especially true when a person feels that they are part of a group that has anti-science views or that feel that their views are underrepresented or exploited by science.
3. It is difficult to overcome long-held beliefs.
Consciously or not, many of us live by the famous refrain from the rock group Journey: “Don’t stop believing.” When information contradicts what a person believes to be true, accurate, or important, it is easier for them to simply dismiss the new information. This is especially true when it comes to something that a person has believed in for a long time.
“People tend not to update their beliefs, so when new information appears on the horizon, people are generally cautious about it,” says Lee.
4. Science doesn’t always match the way people learn.
One perennially debated thought experiment asks the question, “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Rephrased for science, the question might be asked, “If really important information is buried in a book that no one ever reads, will it affect people?”
The challenge facing scientists today is that their work is complicated, and therefore often presented in densely written journals or complex statistical tables. This resonates with other scientists, but is less likely to influence 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 authors of the paper agree: Being pro-science does not mean blindly believing everything science says. “It can also be dangerous,” says Philipp-Muller. Instead, “it’s about a desire to better understand the world and an openness to scientific discoveries made with accurate, valid methods.”
If you count yourself 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-Muller.
Scientists, who can take a warmer approach when communicating their findings, and in a way that is more inclusive to a wider audience.
“It can be very difficult,” says Philipp-Muller, “but it means using language that’s not super jargon or that won’t alienate people. And I think it is the duty of journalists to help.” (Duly noted.)
The authors of the paper also advise scientists to think of new ways to share their discoveries with the public. “The main source of scientific information, for most people, is not scientists,” says Lee. “If we want to shape people’s receptivity, we have to start with the voices that people care about and 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 anyone who interacts with children and young minds (including parents), can help by teaching children scientific reasoning skills. “That way, when [those young people] come across scientific information or misinformation, they can better analyze how the conclusion was reached and determine if it is valid.”
All of us, who can counter anti-science through the surprisingly effective technique of not being a jerk. If you hear someone espouse an anti-scientific view—perhaps at your Thanksgiving table—arguing or telling the person they’re stupid won’t help.
Instead, Philipp-Muller advises, “Try to find common ground and a common identity with someone who shares the views of the anti-science group.”
A calm and respectful conversation about their point of view might help them overcome their resistance, or even help them recognize that they have fallen into one of the four patterns described above.