Thanks to science, we know the world isn’t flat, that the Earth revolves around the sun (and not the reverse), and that microbes cause infectious diseases. So why is scientific skepticism a global phenomenon — and one that appears to be getting worse, if the crazy stuff you saw your friend post on social media this morning is any indication?
In a newly released paper, social psychology researchers sought to answer exactly these types of questions. What leads some people to reject science? And how can trust in science be restored?
Aviva Philipp-Muller, PhD, one of the co-authors of the paper, says finding answers and restoring widespread trust in science may be more important now than ever.
“If you come to conclusions through gut instincts or listening to people that have no knowledge on a topic, you can come to believe just about anything,” she says. “And sometimes it can be dangerous for society when people believe things that are wrong. We’ve seen this in real time, as some people have rejected COVID-19 vaccines not for any scientific reason, but through nonscientific means.”
Backing up Philipp-Muller’s point: A recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 234,000 COVID deaths could have been prevented if vaccination rates were higher.
Four Reasons People Reject Science
In their assessment, Philipp-Muller and her team sought “to understand why people may not be persuaded by scientific findings, and what might make a person be more likely to follow anti-science 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 those who are communicating science as being not credible, biased, lacking expertise, or having an agenda, they will more easily reject the information.
“When people learn anything, it’s going to come from a source,” says Spike W.S. Lee, PhD, a social psychologist based at the University of Toronto and a co-author of the paper. “Certain properties of the source can determine if a person will be persuaded by it.”
2. Pride creates prejudice.
You might consider this the opposite of the belief of famed 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes. Where he famously said, “I think, therefore I am,” this principle indicates that, for some, it’s: “I am, therefore I think …”
People who build their identity around labels or who identify with a certain social group may dismiss information that appears to threaten that identity.
“We are not a blank slate,” Lee says. “We have certain identities that we care about.” And we are willing to protect those identities by believing things that appear to be disproven through data. That’s especially true when a person feels they are part of a group that holds anti-science attitudes, or that thinks their viewpoints have been underrepresented or exploited by science.
3. It’s hard to beat long-held beliefs.
Consciously or not, many of us live by a famous refrain from the rock band Journey: “Don’t stop believin’.” When information goes against what a person has believed to be true, right, or important, it’s easier for them to just reject the new information. That’s especially true when dealing with something a person has believed for a long time.
“People don’t typically keep updating their beliefs, so when there is new information on the horizon, people are generally cautious about it,” Lee says.
4. Science doesn’t always match up with how people learn.
An eternally debated thought experiment asks: “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Reframed for science, the question might ask: “If really important information is buried within a book that no one ever reads, will it affect people?”
A challenge that scientists face today is that their work is complicated, and therefore often gets presented in densely written journals or complex statistical tables. This resonates with other scientists, but it’s less likely to influence those who don’t understand p-values and other statistical concepts. And when new information is presented in a way that doesn’t fit with a person’s thinking style, they may be more likely to reject it.
Winning the War on Anti-Science Attitudes
The authors of the paper agree: Being pro-science does not mean blindly trusting everything science says. “That can be dangerous as well,” Philipp-Muller says. Instead, “it’s about wanting a better understanding of the world, and being open to scientific findings uncovered through 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 help stem the tide of anti-science. “A lot of different people in society can help us solve this problem,” Philipp-Muller says.
Scientists, who can take a warmer approach when communicating their findings, and do so in a way that is more inclusive to a general audience.
“That can be really tough,” Philipp-Muller says, “but it means using language that isn’t super jargony, or isn’t going to alienate people. And I think that it is incumbent upon journalists to help.” (Duly noted.)
The paper’s authors also advise scientists to think through new ways to share their findings with audiences. “The major source of scientific information, for most people, is not scientists,” says Lee. “If we want to shape people’s receptiveness, we need to start with the voices people care about, and which have the most influence.”
This list can include pastors and political leaders, TV and radio personalities, and — like it or not — social media influencers.
Educators, which means anyone who interacts with children and young minds (parents included), can help by teaching kids scientific reasoning skills. “That way, when [those young people] encounter scientific information or misinformation, they can better parse how the conclusion was reached and determine whether it is valid.”
All of us, who can push back against anti-science through the surprisingly effective technique of not being a jerk. If you hear someone advocating an anti-science view — perhaps at your Thanksgiving dinner table — arguing or telling that person they are stupid will not help.
Instead, Philipp-Muller 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 viewpoint might help them work through their resistance, or even recognize that they’ve fallen into one of the four patterns described above.
Aviva Philipp-Muller, PhD, assistant professor of marketing, Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.
Spike W.S. Lee, PhD, social psychologist, University of Toronto.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Why Are People Antiscience, and What Can We Do About It?”