4 Reasons People Reject Good Data
August 5, 2022 – Thanks to science, we know that the world is not flat, that the Earth revolves around the sun (and not the other way around) and that microbes cause infectious diseases. So why is scientific skepticism a global phenomenon — and that seems to be getting worse, if the crazy stuff you saw your friend posting on social media this morning is any indication?
In a whole new paper, researchers in social psychology have sought to answer precisely these types of questions. What makes some people reject science? And how to restore confidence in science?
Aviva Philipp-Muller, PhD, one of the paper’s co-authors, says finding answers and restoring widespread trust in science may be more important than ever.
“If you come to conclusions through your instincts or by listening to people who have no knowledge about a subject, you can come to believe just about anything,” she says. “And sometimes it can be dangerous for society when people believe things that are wrong. We’ve seen it in real time, as some people have rejected COVID-19 vaccines not for scientific reason, but by unscientific means.
Confirming Philipp-Muller’s argument: a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that approximately 234,000 COVID deaths could have been prevented if vaccination rates were higher.
Four reasons why people reject science
In their assessment, Philipp-Muller and his team sought to “understand why people may be unconvinced by scientific findings, and what might make a person more likely to follow anti-scientific forces and voices.”
They identified four recurring themes.
1. People refuse to believe the messenger.
Call it the “I don’t listen to anything on CNN (or Fox News)” explanation. If people see science communicators as not being credible, biased, lacking expertise or having an agenda, they will more easily dismiss the information.
“When people learn something, it comes from a source,” says Spike WS Lee, PhD, social psychologist based at the University of Toronto and co-author of the article. “Certain properties of the source may determine whether a person will be persuaded by it.”
2. Pride creates prejudice.
You might consider this to be the opposite of the belief of the famous 17e French mathematician and philosopher of the century René Descartes. Where he said: “I think, therefore I am”, this principle indicates that, for some, it is: “I am, therefore I think…”
People who build their identity around labels or who identify with a certain social group may reject information that seems to threaten that identity.
“We are not a blank slate,” says Lee. “We have certain identities that are close to our hearts.” And we are prepared to protect those identities by believing things that seem to be disproved by the data. This is especially true when a person feels they are part of a group that has anti-science attitudes or feels that their views have been underrepresented or exploited by science.
3. Long-held beliefs are hard to beat.
Consciously or not, many of us live by a famous refrain from the rock band Journey: “Don’t stop believin’.” When information goes against what a person believed to be true, right, or important, it is easier for them to simply dismiss the new information. This is especially true when it comes to something a person has believed in for a long time.
“People don’t usually update their beliefs, so when there’s new information on the horizon, people are usually cautious about it,” Lee says.
4. Science isn’t always how people learn.
An eternally debated thought experiment asks, “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Reframed for science, the question might ask, “If really important information is buried in a book that no one ever reads, will it affect people?”
A challenge facing scientists today is that their work is complicated and therefore often presented in densely written journals or complex statistical tables. It resonates with other scientists, but is less likely to sway those who don’t understand p-values and other statistical concepts. And when new information is presented in a way that doesn’t match a person’s thinking style, they may be more likely to reject it.
Winning the war against anti-science attitudes
The authors of the article agree: being pro-science does not mean blindly trusting everything science says. “It can also be dangerous,” says Philipp-Muller. Instead, “it’s about wanting a better understanding of the world and being open to scientific discoveries discovered through accurate and valid methods.”
If you count yourself among those who want a better scientific understanding of the world around you, she and Lee say there are steps you can take to help stem the tide of anti-science. “There are many different people in society who can help us solve this problem,” says Philipp-Muller.
Scientists, who can take a warmer approach when communicating their findings, and do so in a more inclusive way for a general audience.
“It can be very difficult,” says Philipp-Muller, “but it means using language that isn’t super jargon, or that isn’t going to alienate people. And I think it’s incumbent on journalists to help (Duly noted.)
The authors of the article also advise scientists to think of new ways to share their findings with the public. “The main source of scientific information, for most people, is not scientists,” says Lee. “If we want to shape people’s receptivity, we have to start with the voices that people care about and have the most influence on.”
This list can include pastors and political leaders, TV and radio personalities and, like it or not, social media influencers.
Educators, which means anyone who interacts with children and young minds (parents included) can help by teaching children scientific reasoning skills. “Like this, when [those young people] encounter scientific information or misinformation, they can better analyze how the conclusion was reached and determine if it is valid.
All of us, who can fend off anti-science with the surprisingly effective technique of not being a fool. If you hear someone defending an anti-science point of view – perhaps at your Thanksgiving table – arguing or telling that person they’re stupid won’t help.
Instead, Philipp-Muller advises, “Try to find common ground and a shared identity with someone who shares opinions with an anti-science group.”
Having a calm, respectful conversation about their perspective can help them overcome their resistance, or even recognize that they have fallen into one of the four patterns described above.