The same four factors that explain how people change their beliefs about various issues may explain the recent rise in anti-science attitudes, a new review suggests.
But politics in modern society has reinforced the way these factors work, making them a powerful force in the growing rejection of science.
In an article published today (July 11, 2022) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthree researchers who study attitudes and persuasion explain the rise of anti-science beliefs today and what can be done about it.
“The classic work on persuasion still applies to what we see today as many people reject the science of vaccines, climate change and other topics,” said Aviva Philipp-Mueller, lead author of the paper. “But there are evidence-based strategies that can work to increase public acceptance of science.”
Philipp-Müller, who did the work as a doctoral student in in psychology at Ohio State Universityhe is now an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University.
Antiscientific beliefs are built on four foundations, or foundations, the authors said. These foundations are: thinking scientific sources are not trusted; identifying with groups that have anti-science attitudes; a scientific message that contradicts a person’s current beliefs; and a mismatch between the way the message is presented and the person’s thinking style.
“What all these four bases have in common is that they reveal what happens when scientific information contradicts what people already think or their thinking style,” said the co-author Richard the Fifthprofessor of psychology at Ohio State.
“These kinds of conflicts are hard for people to deal with, and it makes it easier for them to simply dismiss scientific information that no longer fits with what they believe.”
While these foundations may explain why people reject science, recent decades have seen a significant increase in anti-science attitudes, the authors said.
Petty said he was particularly struck by the sudden rise of anti-vaccination advocates in the United States and elsewhere.
“Before, vaccinations were something standard that everyone accepted. But there have been several developments in recent years that have made it easier to persuade people against the scientific consensus on vaccinations and other issues,” he said.
One, of course, is the rise of social media and the variety of news sources where people can get their own version of the facts.
But the authors point to another related development: the growing importance of political ideology in the modern world.
“Politics has always been around and people have had political views, but politics has not permeated everything. At one time, science and scientific beliefs were separate from politics, but they are no longer,” Petty said.
And because politics is a core part of people’s identity today, ideology influences how they respond to scientific evidence that is politicized, such as climate change.
“Some people may reject new scientific information because it’s easier to do that than to overturn their existing political beliefs,” Philipp-Müller said.
Politics can trigger or reinforce underlying mental processes in all four foundations of anti-science attitudes, Philipp-Müller said.
For example, take source credibility. Research shows that people see others with similar political views as more expert and knowledgeable. As liberals and conservatives find different sources of news credible, they are exposed to different sources of scientific information – and misinformation.
“Social media platforms like Facebook provide personalized news feeds, which means that conservatives and liberals can get very diverse information,” Philipp-Mueller said.
Studies of attitudes and persuasion show how to address some of the key principles that drive anti-science attitudes, according to the authors.
One way to counter anti-science attitudes, for example, is to convey messages that show understanding of other points of view.
“Pro-science messages can acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns on the other side, but explain why the science position is preferable,” Philipp-Muller said.
For example, messages about preventing the spread of COVID-19 may acknowledge that wearing masks can be uncomfortable, but explain that the discomfort is worth it to prevent the spread of the disease.
Another key is to find common ground with people who reject science—even if what you have in common has nothing to do with science.
“People put their defenses up if they feel they’re under attack or that you’re so different from them that you can’t be trusted,” Petty said. “Find places where you agree and work from there.”
Petty and Phillip-Müller said they hope more scientists learn about the psychology of how to communicate their work to the public.
“It’s often not enough to simply present a simple and accurate message,” Petty said.
“Psychological research can help scientists learn to present their work to different kinds of audiences, including those who may be skeptical.”
Philipp-Müller added: “There is an opportunity to counter the anti-science attitudes and sentiments that exist. We must use evidence-based strategies to increase public acceptance of science.”
Spike W.S. Lee of the University of Toronto also co-authored the paper.
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