Dec 04 2017

The Causes of Science Denial

Over the last few decades the challenges we face promoting science and critical thinking have become greater, but so have the tools at our disposal. The “science of anti-science” has been progressing nicely, and we now have a much more nuanced view of what we are up against.

Carl Sagan was fond of saying that, “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.” That was the conventional wisdom among skeptics at the time (quote from Demon Haunted World, published in 1997) – that the problem of pseudoscience or science-denial was essentially one of information deficit. Correct the deficit, and the science-denial goes away. We now know that the real situation is far more complex.

To reduce the acceptance of pseudoscience or the rejection of real science, we need to do more than just promote scientific literacy. We also need to understand what is driving the pseudoscience, and we need to give critical thinking skills.

A recent publication of a series of studies looking at the roots of science rejection is a nice cap on this research: Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection.

The researchers looked primarily at three forms of rejection of science: climate change denial, vaccine rejection, and skepticism about GM technology. They also looked at a number of possible correlating factors: political ideology, moral purity, religiosity, support for science, faith in science, and scientific literacy.

There are a lot of details here, and if you want to delve in deeply it’s best to just read the original study (it’s pretty accessible). I will give a summary of the overall findings here.

They found that climate change denial was predicted mainly by political ideology, but not by low scientific literacy. Vaccine rejection was predicted by low scientific literacy and low faith in science, and also by religiosity and moral purity. Distrust of GM food was predicted by low scientific literacy and low faith in science. Neither vaccine or GM food rejection were predicted by political ideology.

Further, there was a lot of interplay among these various measures. For example, religious orthodoxy was the main driver of low faith in science and support for science.

One lesson from all this is that belief is very complicated, and it is difficult to tease apart all the various influences. A study, for example, that only looked at political ideology and science rejection would miss a massive part of the picture. We also have to consider direct vs secondary effects – does religious orthodoxy directly lead to rejection of vaccines, or more through a desire for moral purity and an overall lack of faith in science?

We also have to think about what factors this study did not examine. I noticed the distinct absence of any measure of conspiracy thinking. There is plenty of evidence that a tendency to accept conspiracy theories also predicts rejection of science in the right context. I would also be interested to see how faith in government and corporations also plays into science rejection, and if these are independent variables at all or completely predicted by political ideology.

The possible permutations are endless. The best we can do is pull out some general trends as they apply to specific beliefs. For example, these studies suggest that scientific literacy itself will do nothing to combat rejection of the consensus of scientific opinion on climate change, but it may be very effective in reducing unwarranted skepticism toward GM technology, and go a little ways toward mitigating vaccine rejection.

Here is one way I would put this all together – we have to understand acceptance and rejection of science as part of an overall narrative. People have a certain world view, or narrative by which they make sense of an overwhelmingly complex world. This is understandable, even necessary. We need to organize our knowledge into manageable bits that hold together with a common thread.

The trick is understanding one’s own narratives and how they color and filter the world. Further, we need critical thinking skills in order to constantly test our narratives for internal consistency, logic, and factual consistency with reality. We need to be able to step back from our own narratives, so that we can use them as a tool, rather than being enslaved to them.

So one way to make sense of all the complex interacting variables, only some of which were examined in these studies, is to see how they fit together into a common narrative, or more likely multiple overlapping narratives. We might think of these as archetypes (or less charitably as stereotypes). For example we might have someone whose narrative is dominated by the notion of purity – moral purity, clean eating, freedom from corporate greed and the moral and physical “toxins” of modern society. There may be religious and secular versions of this narrative, with varying levels of scientific literacy, but not aligned to any particular political ideology.

Alternatively another archetypal narrative might be the conspiracy theorist – someone with an extreme distrust of power, who themselves feel powerless, who understand the world as a struggle between those in control and the sheep. In such a worldview, the only defense is paranoia and distrust, and anything less is naive.

Part of what we skeptics have been trying to do over the years is identify and understand the various common narratives that seem to get in the way of science acceptance or that drive the embrace of pseudoscience. While I think we have made good progress there, the far harder part is then mitigating the negative effects of those narratives. Again – simply promoting scientific literacy is not enough (although it often helps).

In fact there is recent research which shows in order to change someone’s beliefs about science we need to replace their existing explanatory narrative with another one. We can’t just take away their blanket – we need to give them a new way to make sense of the world.

What I take from all this is that what skeptical activists need to do, in order to make the world a more skeptical place, is to not only promote science, support for science, and overall scientific literacy, but all increase critical thinking skills. Further, we need to promote a narrative of scientific skepticism – we need to explain how skepticism provides a useful and accurate way of making sense of the world.

This means that people need to identify as critical thinkers, to identify with prioritizing the accuracy of their beliefs over all else. Being correct is more important than supporting your tribe, or reinforcing your ideology. Until we get to that point – we will lose to the existing narratives.

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