Oct 03 2013

Politics, Science Rejection, and Conspiracy Thinking

Even among self-identified skeptics and critical thinkers, there is the full spectrum of political ideology, and this varying world view does seem to color certain opinions. In my experience in the community, most skeptics eventually get to a similar place with regard to politically-charged scientific topics (logic and evidence do hold sway in the end), but they certainly start in different places. There is also the occasional skeptic who, while displaying critical thinking in most areas, retains a sacred cow or two associated with their political world view.

A recent study explores the issue of political worldview, conspiracy thinking, and the acceptance or rejection of certain scientific topics. Stephen Lewandowsky et al published the study in PLOSOne, The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science

The study essentially looks for association between a free market ideology, conservatism, and conspiracy thinking as these world views relate to acceptance or rejection of vaccine safety, global warming, and acceptance of GMO (genetically modified organisms). A number of interesting and not-so-surprising findings emerged.

The hypothesis going in is that free-market advocates tend to reject government authority, while the political left tend to be suspicious of corporations. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists reject and are suspicious of all authority and institutions.

First, the least surprising result – conspiracy thinking predicted rejection of vaccines, global warming, and GMO. The underlying factor here seems to be a suspicious nature, regardless of political ideology. This also fits general experience and previous data – people who accept one conspiracy theory are likely to accept others.

The relationship between rejecting science and political ideology was a bit more complex. Free market proponents and conservatism were independent variables that could be separated, but they did tend to go together. It is assumed in this study (a common model) that those who score low on the conservatism scale are therefore liberal or progressive. I’m not sure why this is used, rather than a liberalism scale, and if this skews results in any way.

Free market proponents most strongly rejected the consensus on global warming. They somewhat rejected vaccination, and there was no relationship with GMO.

Conservatives also rejected global warming, but had a positive correlation with vaccine acceptance, and no relationship to GMO. The acceptance of vaccines had a compensatory effect for those who are both conservatives and libertarians (free market proponents).

Liberals had a small association with vaccine rejection, and no effect on global warming or GMO. The lack of an association with GMO was surprising to the authors as much of the anti-GMO rhetoric does tend to come from the political left.

In the discussion the authors offer their analysis of these findings. They argue that the motivation for conservatives to reject science is system justification – supporting the status quo. When a scientific finding challenges the status quo, as global warming appears to do, they reject it. But they are also accepting of science that supports the status quo, like vaccination.

Libertarians, on the other hand, are suspicious of government. They see both global warming and vaccinations as attempts by the government to intrude on the free market or our personal lives, respectively.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be suspicious of corporations. This explains the effect with vaccinations, but does not explain the lack of the expected effect with GMO. The authors hypothesize that it is only the extreme left that rejects the science on GMO, and this was not captured in their study.

To summarize, the authors write:

In summary, although a free-market worldview is a powerful predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have regulatory implications such as climate science, we found its effect to be far from general: The involvement of worldview in vaccinations was arguably small, and it was entirely absent for GM foods. Nonetheless, it must be reiterated that we found limited evidence for the rejection of vaccinations based on liberal or “left-wing” political leanings: When free-market worldviews are parceled out (and only then), people on the political left were less likely to endorse childhood vaccinations than people on the political right.

The authors also note prior research indicating that presenting people of any political world view with evidence regarding the consensus of scientific opinion did have an effect on their opinions. People generally are influenced by the consensus.

It was also noted that this study is examining limited variables and that further research is needed, looking at other specific topics, for a more thorough analysis of the effects of world view on the rejections of science. In other words, the effect is likely to be very issue-specific, and so many issues need to be covered in order to draw reliable conclusions about the effects of ideology.


Political ideology, unsurprisingly, has an effect on whether or not people accept or reject specific scientific conclusions.  We tend to engage in motivated reasoning to defend our world view. The stronger the motivation, the stronger this effect.

This illustrates why, in my opinion, it is important to be aware of one’s personal biases and to be aware of the effect those biases have on our thinking. Further, I would argue that in order to minimize the effect of such biases on our acceptance or rejection of science, the best world view to have is one that respects science and critical thinking above ideology. This is the world view of the skeptic.


22 responses so far