Why People Are Anti-Science – And What We Can Do About It

By Rosa Rubicondior | 13 July 2022
Rosa Rubicondior Blog

(Photo: Ivan Radic / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

The 4 bases of anti-science beliefs – and what to do about them.

Under the influence of his scientific illiteracy and political incompetence during the COVID-19 pandemic, former President Donald Trump’s lasting legacy is likely to be a large and growing number of Americans who now distrust science and so represent a danger to the rest of us.

The result is a growing resistance to measures to combat climate change and vaccination campaigns to eradicate or control pandemic such as the current coronavirus pandemic or life-threatening epidemics such as measles, mumps and rubella.

This level of anti-science attitude in a major country is a clear danger to the world as a whole, since climate change and viruses are not limited by national borders.

Now three researchers at Ohio State University who study attitudes and persuasion, have published a paper in Proceeding of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) which explain the rise in anti-science beliefs today and outlines what can be done about it. Sadly, the paper itself is behind an expensive paywall, but the abstract is available, open access, under a Creative Commons licence.

The researchers, Aviva Philipp-Muller, Assistant Professor of marketing at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University and formerly of Department of Psychology, Ohio State University, Dr. Richard E. Petty, Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University and Spike W. S. Lee of Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada, have identified four foundations or bases of anti-science:

  • thinking scientific sources lack credibility
  • identifying with groups that have anti-science attitudes
  • scientific message that contradicts a person’s current beliefs
  • a mismatch between how a message is presented and a person’s style of thinking

As the Ohio State University News release explains:

While these foundations can explain why people reject science, there has been a marked increase in anti-science attitudes in the past decades, the authors said.

Petty said he has been particularly struck by the sudden growth of anti-vaccination advocates in the United States and elsewhere.

“Vaccinations used to be a standard thing that everyone accepted. But there have been a few developments in recent years that have made it easier to persuade people against the scientific consensus on vaccinations and other issues.”

One [development], of course, is the rise of social media and a 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 were 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 are 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 that than overturn their pre-existing political beliefs,” Philipp-Muller said.

In the abstract to their paper in PNAS, the authors say:

Abstract

From vaccination refusal to climate change denial, antiscience views are threatening humanity. When different individuals are provided with the same piece of scientific evidence, why do some accept whereas others dismiss it? Building on various emerging data and models that have explored the psychology of being antiscience, we specify four core bases of key principles driving antiscience attitudes. These principles are grounded in decades of research on attitudes, persuasion, social influence, social identity, and information processing. They apply across diverse domains of antiscience phenomena. Specifically, antiscience attitudes are more likely to emerge when a scientific message comes from sources perceived as lacking credibility; when the recipients embrace the social membership or identity of groups with antiscience attitudes; when the scientific message itself contradicts what recipients consider true, favorable, valuable, or moral; or when there is a mismatch between the delivery of the scientific message and the epistemic style of the recipient. Politics triggers or amplifies many principles across all four bases, making it a particularly potent force in antiscience attitudes. Guided by the key principles, we describe evidence-based counteractive strategies for increasing public acceptance of science.

The authors identify politics as a trigger across all four bases of anti-science attitude, and it is clear from the recent history of the USA that the there are three main drivers of this growing anti-science attitude there, and to a lesser extent elsewhere:

  • The lead of the scientifically illiterate, narcissist, Donald Trump, who didn’t understand either the science behind measures to reduce climate change or the need for them, or measures to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, but was psychologically incapable of accepting that there were experts in the field who knew more than he did, so minimised the risks and dismissed the expert advice he was given. His deliberate politicisation of the pandemic made it acceptable to dismiss science.
  • The pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theorists who showed that there appears to be no lower limit to the credulity of very many, scientifically illiterate Americans who were willing to dive into the same rabbit hole that Trump had dived into.
  • The lead of the evangelical churches who cynically allied themselves with the then President Trump in the hope of gaining political power and influence, with little or no regard for the harm their ‘message’ was doing either to their own supporters or to the public at large.

Ironically, given the role of science in developing the vaccines that have reduced the effects of a deadly virus to, in most cases, a relatively mild infection for those vaccinated. Science now has a great deal to do to regain the position of trust that it once had, and which enabled it to exterminate smallpox and come very close to exterminated polio. At the start of the pandemic, mRNA vaccines were cutting edge science and a major international effort produced the first vaccines in record time and has resulted in a new, safe approach to many other pathologies.

One thing of which we can be sure, is that we have science and scientists to thank for this, albeit limited, success against COVID-19, not political inaction and obstruction or prayers. The overwhelming preponderance of deaths of unvaccinated people from the delta and omicron waves of COVID-19, should have acted as a warning of the dangers of antivaxxer denialism and yet the data was dismissed along with all the other scientific evidence as ‘fake news’ or part of a conspiracy to mislead!

Because of the runaway nature of greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere and the resulting rise in global temperatures, by the time experience has shown climate deniers the error of their attitude it may well be too late to reverse the effects of their stupidity. So, science now faces a massive task to educate and inform and win the ‘culture war’ unleashed on the planet by the political right in the USA in alliance with their new friends in evangelical Christianity.

Rosa Rubicondior (a pseudonym) is a retired data analyst, biologist, blogger, author and atheist.

The connection between White evangelical Republicans and QAnon

Why Is The GOP So Anti-Science? | The Mehdi Hasan Show

Why do people believe in misinformation?

How Disinformation Is Taking Over the World | NYT Opinion

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