The same four factors that explain how people change their beliefs on a variety of issues may account for the recent rise in anti-science attitudes, a new review suggests.
But politics in modern society has reinforced the way these factors operate, making them a powerful force in the growing rejection of science.
In a paper published today (July 11, 2022) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthree researchers who study attitudes and beliefs 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’re seeing today as many people reject the science of vaccines, climate change and other topics,” said Aviva Philipp-Muller, lead author of the paper. “But there are evidence-based strategies that can work for increasing public acceptance of science.”
Philipp-Muller, who did the work as a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State University, is now an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University.
Anti-science beliefs are built on four foundations, or bases, the authors said. These bases are: scientific sources of thinking lack credibility; identification with groups that hold anti-science attitudes; a scientific message that conflicts with a person’s current beliefs; and a mismatch between how a message is presented and a person’s thinking style.
“What all four of these foundations have in common is that they reveal what happens when scientific information conflicts with what people already think or their thinking style,” said co-author Richard Petty, professor of psychology at Ohio State.
“These kinds of conflicts are hard for people to handle, and it makes it easier for them to simply reject scientific information that doesn’t already fit what they believe.”
While these foundations may explain why people reject science, there has been a marked increase in anti-science attitudes in recent decades, the authors said.
Petty said he has been particularly struck by the sudden rise of anti-vaccination advocates in the United States and elsewhere.
“Vaccinations used to be a standard thing that everyone accepted. But there have been some developments in recent years that have made it easier to persuade people against the scientific consensus on vaccines and other issues,” he said.
One, of course, is the rise of social media and a variety of news sources where people can get their version of the facts.
But the authors point to another related development: the growing importance of political ideology in the modern world.
“Politics was always around, and people had political views, but politics didn’t permeate everything. Science and scientific beliefs were separate from politics at one time, but not anymore,” Petty said.
And because politics today is a core part of people’s identity, ideology affects how they react to scientific evidence that has been politicized, such as climate change.
“Some people may reject new scientific information because it is easier to do so than to overturn their pre-existing political beliefs,” Philipp-Muller said.
Politics can cause or reinforce the underlying mental processes in all four bases of anti-science attitudes, Philipp-Muller said.
For example, take source credibility. Research shows that people view others with similar political views as more expert and knowledgeable. Because liberals and conservatives find different news sources credible, they expose themselves to different sources of scientific information – and disinformation.
“Social media platforms like Facebook offer personalized news feeds that mean conservatives and liberals can get very different information,” said Philipp-Muller.
According to the authors, research on attitudes and belief shows how to address some of the key principles that drive anti-science attitudes.
One way to counter anti-science attitudes, for example, is to convey messages that show an understanding of other viewpoints.
“Pro-science messages can acknowledge that there are valid concerns on the other hand, but explain why the scientific 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 raise their defenses if they think they’re being attacked or that you’re so different from them that you can’t be trusted,” Petty said. “Find some places where you agree and work from there.”
Petty and Philipp-Muller said they hope more scientists learn about psychology and how to communicate their work to the public.
“It’s often not enough just to 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-Muller added: “There is an opportunity to challenge the anti-science attitudes and sentiments that are out there. We must use evidence-based strategies to increase public acceptance of science.”
Spike WS Lee from the University of Toronto also co-authored the paper.