May 27 2010

Barriers to the Acceptance of Science

For those of us trying to increase scientific literacy – understanding of the methods, philosophical underpinnings, common pitfalls, and current findings of science – it can be a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes it seems we are caught in a Catch-22: some people don’t care about science because they don’t understand it, and they don’t want to learn about science because they don’t care. Even worse, at times (most times) we seem to be coming up against emotions and patterns of thought deeply rooted in evolution that nothing short of transcendence will solve.

Three recent studies reinforce our worst fears about human nature and make it clear how much of an uphill battle we face. The first looks at attitudes toward the MMR vaccine and which sources parents trust the most. The researchers found:

Five key themes emerged. Parents felt they didn’t have enough information, especially in relation to the dangers associated with not vaccinating. Government sources were not trusted. By contrast, other parents were trusted: ‘Parents trust advice from other parents,’ one mother said. ‘[You] take it on board. You listen to them.’ Parents also revealed they were biased towards risk-related information. And they misunderstood balance, believing that pro- and anti-MMR arguments should be given equal weight even though the scientific evidence overwhelming favours MMR vaccination.

Part of this seems solvable, but part is inherent. The solvable parts include parents not having enough information regarding the dangers of not vaccinating. Lack of information is always the easiest problem to solve – make the information more readily available, especially to people when and where they are making decisions that will be informed by that information.

The other two elements are due to evolved human nature, and therefore are tough nuts to crack. Parents rely on information from other parents – more generally, people find stories much more compelling than data. It makes sense that our natural instincts would be inclined toward stories from our peers. It also makes sense that we would tend to believe and remember such stories, that they would be emotionally profound. In our evolutionary milieu, there was probably more to lose from being doubtful or forgetful of cautionary tales told to us by our peers, than from heeding them. In our complex modern society with phishing scams, used car salesmen, and urban legends, being gullible is probably more of a detriment than being skeptical, but even still we find ourselves riveted by a ripping yarn, especially one of harm that could have been avoided.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that there are numerous grassroots parent groups forming that are basically built on parents or patients educating each other. Such groups come in all flavors – some are guided by a strong dedication to the science, others mix science with anecdote and myth without discrimination, and still others wonder off into a fantasy land of pseudoscience and conspiracy. They each develop their own subculture, mainly driven by person to person communication.

Further, the study shows that people are more compelled by fear than reassurance. Medical decisions are best informed by a careful assessment of risk vs benefit – but emotionally we are much more compelled by the prospect of risk than the prospect of benefit. (Actually, this relationship is more complex and depends on context. People will accept great risk if the potential benefit is huge, like a cure for a terminal or serious illness. If the benefit is more abstract, like preventing a problem they do not currently have, then they focus onĀ  risk.) Here again, we are much more likely to be compelled by one story of a side effect, than all the statistics about preventing illness. The difference in our emotional response to statistics vs our emotional response to dramatic stories largely explains why some people are afraid to fly, and why others fear vaccination.

The other two components of this research – lack of trust in government and favoring balance (even when the information is not balanced) may be more cultural than hard-wired. Either way, they are further barriers to educating the public about vaccines.

The second study is, in some ways, even more disturbing than the first, because it strikes right at the heart of skeptical activism. Researchers find that when people are confronted with scientific information that directly challengesĀ  a cherished belief, their typical response is to argue for the impotence of science – science is unable to prove or disprove my belief. That much is predictable, and any skeptic can tell you that this is a common response. However, the study takes it one step further – they found that people also, after being confronted, shift their belief toward thinking that science in general is impotent. This probably is a mechanism to reduce cognitive dissonance, but in any case confronting people with disconfirming scientific evidence tends to reduce their confidence in science in general.

We have seen this in action with the anti-evolutionists. They not only reject the science of evolution, in their defense of their religious beliefs they often reject science as a methodology. The Discovery Institute has certainly done this, arguing that the materialistic paradigm of science (i.e. science) is crumbling (i.e. impotent). Once you distrust science it is easy to reject any scientific position you don’t like, so the DiscoTute has happily also chucked out modern neuroscience and climatology as well – it’s all an atheistic, materialistic, liberal conspiracy. It’s the snowball effect of anti-science. This study just confirms that.

The third study is in line with the previous two, but looks at belief in ESP. Essentially they told several groups that ESP was either supported by 10% of the public vs 90% of the public or that it was either supported by or rejected by the scientific community. Every permutation of these two variables was tested. The results – people were more likely to regard ESP favorably if they were told that the majority of the public believed in it – we are compelled by the beliefs of our peers. We want to fit in. This is not surprise.

Disturbing, however, was the fact that people in this study were more likely to accept ESP if they were told scientists rejected it rather than accepted it. They took the opposite opinion of the scientific community. What process is at work here? Are they reflexively rejecting authority? Do they assume that scientists are closed-minded about the paranormal if they reject it, but if they accept it does that trigger some natural skepticism?

Regardless of the explanation, it seems that the natural instinct is the opposite of what it should be.


It’s easy to become depressed by this trifecta of studies, but they really don’t paint a picture different than what we already knew – people believe stories over science and come to their conclusions mostly for evolved emotional, rather than dry rational, reasons. These studies are helpful because they illuminate the details and hopefully will provide some guidance as we continue to search for strategies to promote science and reason.

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