Scientific skeptics often suffer from overconfidence

People who challenge the scientific consensus on topics such as the efficacy of vaccines, climate change or the Big Bang tend to overestimate their own knowledge of those topics, a new study finds.

The survey polled thousands of Americans online, asking them about scientific facts and soliciting their opinions on eight controversial topics, including the COVID-19 vaccine.

The researchers found that respondents who answered more factual questions correctly were more likely to agree with the scientific consensus on each topic. On the other hand, those who answered many factual questions incorrectly but felt they understood certain topics well were more likely to disagree with the scientific consensus.

For example, many who said in July 2020 that they would “definitely not get the vaccine” incorrectly answered questions about how viruses spread and how vaccines work, but then said they thought they had a “deep understanding” of how the COVID-19 vaccine would work.

The research appears in the journal Science Advances.


Stephen Sloman, co-author of the study and professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, says the findings show that whether or not people agree with scientists doesn’t just depend on how well they understand the science — it also depends on how well they perceive their own understanding. The research also shows the extent to which alternative facts have taken hold in many communities.

“The sad fact is that our society has returned to an era where many people’s sense of truth is driven more by the beliefs of those around them than by the hard work of scientists using evidence to test their hypotheses,” says Sloman .

Nick Light, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of marketing at Portland State University, says the study reveals why evidence-based educational interventions have had only limited success in persuading people to, say, get vaccinated or reduce their individual carbon footprints. .

“For many years, smart people thought that the way to bring people more in line with the scientific consensus was to teach them the knowledge they lacked,” Light says. “Unfortunately, our research suggests that there may be a problem with overconfidence that gets in the way of learning… If people think they know a lot, they have minimal motivation to learn more.”


Light says that people who disagree with the majority of scientists on controversial topics may first need to understand what they don’t know about those topics before they become receptive to educational interventions that could improve their financial well-being, personally health, and more. But that’s easier said than done, he says: After all, no one likes to be told they’re ignorant.

Light, Sloman, and their coauthors suggested two possible ways to help people understand the complexity of scientific topics and persuade them to trust experts. One is to encourage them to try to explain the mechanisms underlying complex scientific phenomena such as vaccines and climate change, since attempts to do so often reveal gaps in people’s knowledge.

Another is to compare complex scientific topics with topics they understand well, such as those related to their work or hobbies; doing so, the authors write, can help illustrate how much time and knowledge is required to master a topic, strengthening people’s trust in experts who have spent years or decades working in a particular scientific field.

Using the powerful influence of community leaders like mayors and church leaders can also help, Light says. If respected community members model certain behaviors, he explains, their fellow community members may be more inclined to do the same.

“People tend to do what their community expects them to do,” says Light. So if anti-scientific positions put people’s lives at risk, “it is society’s duty to try to change its mind in favor of the scientific consensus.”

The study was funded by Humility and Conviction in Public Life, a University of Connecticut project sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. The researchers also received funding for data collection from the Center for Excellence in Health Communication with Underserved Populations at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

This article was originally published on Futurity. Republished under an Attribution 4.0 International license.

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