Skeptics of science often suffer from overconfidence

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

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

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

For example, many of those 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 felt they had a “full understanding” of how a the COVID-19 vaccine would work.

The research appears in the journal Advances in science.

What is more ‘true’?

Steven Sloman, a co-author of the study and a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, says the findings show that whether or not people agree with scientists depends not only on how well they understand the science, but also. it depends on how well they perceive their understanding. The research also shows the extent to which alternative facts have spread in many communities.

“It is a sad fact that our society has returned to an era in which many people’s sense of what is true is driven more by the beliefs of the people around them than by the hard work of scientists using evidence to test hypotheses. theirs,” 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 cut back. 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,” says Light. “Unfortunately, our research suggests that there may be a problem of overconfidence in the way of learning… If people think they know too much, they have minimal motivation to learn more.”

Overconfidence and ignorance

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 are likely to become open to educational interventions that might improve their well-being. financial, personal 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 offered two possible routes to helping people understand the complexity of scientific topics and to persuade them to trust experts. One is to encourage them to try to explain the mechanisms underlying complex scientific phenomena like vaccines and climate change, since attempts to do so often reveal gaps in one’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 needed to master a topic, strengthening people’s trust in experts who have spent years or decades working in a particular scientific field.

Leveraging the powerful influence of community leaders such as mayors and church leaders can also help, Light says. If respected members of the community model a certain behavior, he explains, other members of the community may be more likely to do the same.

“People tend to do what their community expects them to do,” Light says. So if attitudes against science are endangering people’s lives, “it is society’s duty to try to change minds 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.

Source: Brown University

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