Why it happens and 5 things you can do

Science denial has become deadly in 2020. Many political leaders failed to support the preventive measures that scientists knew were effective. During the pandemic, people who died of COVID-19 still believed it didn’t exist.

Of course, denying science is nothing new. But it is more important than ever to understand why some people deny, doubt or resist scientific explanations — and what can be done to overcome these barriers to acceptance of science.

In our book, “Science Denial: Why It Happens and How to Respond,” we give you ways to understand and solve the problem. As two research psychologists, we know that everyone is susceptible to it. Most importantly, we know there are solutions.

Here’s our advice on how to deal with five psychological challenges that can lead to scientific denial.

Challenge #1: Social Proof

People are social beings and tend to align with those who hold similar beliefs and values. Social media amplifies alliances. You may see more views you already agree with and fewer alternative views. People live in information filter bubbles created by powerful algorithms. When people in your social circle share misinformation, you’re more likely to believe it and share it. Misinformation has multiplied, as has denial of science.

Can you find common ground to connect?
LinkedIn Sales Solutions/Unsplash, CC BY

Action #1: Everyone has multiple social identities. One of us spoke to a climate change denier and found out that he was also a grandparent. As he considered the future of his grandchildren, he opened up and the conversation turned to economic issues, the source of his denial. Or maybe someone is hesitant about vaccines, because so is the mother in her kids’ playgroup, but she’s also a caring person who cares about immunocompromised kids.

We find it effective to listen to the concerns of others and try to find common ground. People with whom you connect are more persuasive than those with whom you share less. When one identity prevents people from accepting science, use a second identity to make connections.

Challenge #2: Mental Shortcuts

Everyone is busy, and the thoughtfulness of being vigilant all the time can be exhausting. You see an article online with a clickbait title like “eat chocolate, live longer” and you share it because you think it’s true, hope it’s true, or think it’s ridiculous of.

Action 2: Instead of sharing articles about how GMOs are unhealthy, learn to slow down and monitor the quick, intuitive responses that psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking. Instead, open up the rational analytical mind of System 2 and ask yourself, how do I know this is true? Is this reasonable? Why do I think this is true? Then do some fact checking. Learning not to immediately accept information you already believe is called confirmation bias.

Challenge #3: Trust the way and what you know

Everyone has their own ideas about what they think knowledge is, where it comes from, and who to trust. Some people think binary: there is always a clear right and wrong. But scientists see tentativeness as a hallmark of their discipline. Some people may not understand that scientific claims will change as more evidence is collected, so they may not believe how public health policy is shifting around COVID-19.

Journalists presenting “both sides” of an established scientific agreement may unknowingly convince readers that science is more uncertain than it actually is, turning the balance into bias. Only 57% of Americans surveyed admit that climate change is caused by human activity, compared to 97% of climate scientists who believe that only 55% believe scientists are confident climate change is happening.

man reading a book in the distance
How do you know what you know?
ridvan_celik/E+ via Getty Images

Action #3: Recognize that other people (maybe even you) may have false beliefs about science. You can help them adopt what the philosopher of science Lee McIntyre calls a scientific attitude, an openness to seeking new evidence, and a willingness to change their minds.

Recognize that few people rely on a single authority for knowledge and expertise. For example, the issue of vaccine hesitancy has been successfully addressed by doctors who persuasively refute false beliefs and friends who explain why they have changed their minds. For example, clergy can move forward, and some offer places of worship as vaccination centers.

Challenge #4: Motivated Reasoning

You might not think that how you interpret a simple graph might depend on your political views. But when people were asked to look at graphs depicting the cost of housing or the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over time, different political parties had different interpretations. Conservatives are more prone to misinterpreting the graph than progressives because it depicts the rise in carbon dioxide rather than the cost of housing it shows. People are flawed in their reasoning when they not only reason by checking the facts, but come to their preferred conclusions out of unconscious bias.

Action 4: Maybe you think eating GMOs is bad for your health, but have you really checked the evidence? Look at articles with pro and con information, assess the source of that information, and be open to evidence that favors one or the other. If you give yourself time to think and reason, you can shorten your own motivational reasoning and open your mind to new information.

Challenge #5: Emotions and Attitudes

When Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet, the reaction of many children and some adults was anger and disapproval. Emotions and attitudes are interrelated. Reactions to hearing about humans impacting the climate can range from anger (if you don’t believe it) to frustration (if you’re worried you might need to change your lifestyle) to anxiety and despair (if you accept that it’s happening but think it’s too late) . Your views on climate change mitigation or GMO labelling are consistent with whether you support these policies.

Action #5: Recognize the role of emotions in scientific decision-making. If you react strongly to stories about stem cells used to develop Parkinson’s treatments, ask yourself if you are being overly optimistic because you have a relative in the early stages of the disease. Or are you rejecting potentially life-saving treatment because of your emotions?

Feelings shouldn’t (and can’t) be put in a separate box from your views on science. Rather, it is important to understand and recognize emotions as a fully integrated way of thinking and learning about science. Ask yourself if your attitude toward a scientific topic is based on your emotions, and if so, give yourself some time to think, reason, and feel about the issue.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]

Everyone can be vulnerable to these five psychological challenges that lead to denial, skepticism, and resistance to science. Awareness of these challenges is the first step in taking action to address them.

Leave a Comment