Why so many people mistrust science and how we can fix it

Not since the Scopes Monkey Trial a century ago, in which a Tennessee high school science teacher was found guilty of violating the state’s law prohibiting the teaching of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, have anti-scientific attitudes been so apparent and openly embraced by political leaders in the United States.

The denial, now decades long, of the evidence of human-induced climate change by a large segment of the population, reinforced by the rhetoric of powerful Republicans like governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, has been matched over the past two-and-a-half years by the wholesale rejection of scientific evidence about COVID-19 by many of these same politicians and much of the American population, approximately 40% of whom reject the science about both.

Drawing on decades of marketing and psychology research, which show that it is critical to understand your target audience so that a product can be positioned properly in the market, Dr Aviva Philipp-Muller, professor at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University, and her team determined there are four different reasons why people have anti-science attitudes.

Having anatomised the principles behind each attitude, “Why are people anti-science, and what can we do about it?”, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, proposes strategies to counter each of the four anti-science attitudes.

“Persuasion researchers have known for a little while that getting in your audience’s head and understanding where they’re coming from is step one of trying to win them over. There’s no one-size-fits-all persuasion tactic. So, if you’re not getting through to someone, you might need to reassess why they’re anti-science in the first place and try to speak directly to that basis,” says Philipp-Muller.

Reason one: Suspicions about scientists and experts

The first group Philipp-Muller and her co-authors, Professor Spike WS Lee (Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto) and Social Psychology Professor Richard E Petty (Ohio State University, Columbus), discuss are suspicious of scientists and experts.

One reason large sections of the population mistrust scientists such as Dr Anthony Fauci is because of the cynicism about elite institutions (including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the stereotyping of scientists as cold and unfeeling. This view of medical experts contrasts sharply, it is worth noting, with the avuncular characters in television soap operas and films from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

A further contributing factor to the mistrust of scientists harkens back to what prompted Tennessee politicians, who had strong support from their evangelical constituents, to ban the teaching of evolution: modern science’s antipathy to Christian teachings, beliefs and values.

During the COVID-19 crisis, faith in scientists has also been weakened by what many in the public saw as confusing recommendations and even backtracking about masking: from there being no need to wear masks, to saving surgical masks and N95 masks for medical workers, to everyone needing to wear an N95 mask.

(The fact that the recommendations changed because of new information – ie because that is how science works – Philipp-Muller told University World News, is not relevant to how much of the public responded to the recommendations.)

Reason two: Social identities

Both communications professors and marketers have studied how social identities largely determine recipients’ openness to a message. It comes as no surprise that because in the past they were subjected to (often heinous) experiments without their knowledge, both American Blacks and Indigenous peoples are wary of medical scientists, for example.

“For individuals who embrace an identity [eg evangelical Christians], scientists are members of the outgroup,” Philipp-Muller writes, and are therefore not to be believed. This can be seen in the way, in the United States and some other countries, televangelists and preachers told their flocks that taking the COVID vaccine showed a lack of faith in the efficacy of prayer.

Social identity dynamics, augmented by social media, Philipp-Muller says, play a major role in the rise of (demonstrably false) conspiracy theories, such as the claim that the COVID-19 vaccine contains microchips.

Reason three: Overturning a world view

Perhaps the most infamous example of the third basis for rejecting science – a message that overturns a world view – is the Catholic Church’s rejection of Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth orbits the sun, holding onto an erroneous view that had stood for four centuries.

To avoid “cognitive dissonance”, individuals will hold to an erroneous view even after they are presented with evidence. This is one reason why “fake news” and misinformation are so difficult to counter, notes the study.

Reason four: Epistemic style

The final basis for anti-science thinking, Philipp-Muller and her team discern, occurs when there is a “mismatch between the delivery of the scientific message and the recipient’s epistemic style”; in other words, when information is delivered in a manner at odds with the recipient’s way of thinking.

For example, people who are more comfortable thinking in concrete terms are more likely to dismiss issues like climate change because it is often presented in abstract terms divorced from the individual’s daily life.

One of the most interesting points Philipp-Muller and her team make is how, for large sections of the public, the rhetorical structures scientists use end up undercutting the authority of their conclusions.

Since the science is evolving in real time, when speaking of COVID-19 or climate change, scientists “hedge their findings and avoid over-claiming certainty as they try to communicate the preliminary, inconclusive, nuanced or evolving nature of scientific evidence”.

Partially because the public is poorly educated as to how science operates – famously summarised by the philosopher Karl Popper as working through the Falsification Principle – the rhetorical structures used by scientists lead people with low tolerance for uncertainty to reject both the information and recommendations that scientists like Fauci give.

(The Falsification Principle holds that, as opposed to an opinion or statement of religious faith, a scientific theory must be testable and structured so that it can conceivably be proven false.)

“There are a lot of people who don’t really have tolerance for uncertainty and really need to be told things in black and white. And so there’s a mismatch between how scientists tend to communicate information and how whole segments of the population tend to process information,” says Philipp-Muller.

The limitations of science education

Improving scientific literacy, the default solution of professors, will only go so far towards solving the problem of anti-science attitudes, says Philipp-Muller, especially if such education is conceived of as teaching students a list of facts.

“That’s not going to be helpful and, in fact, could backfire,” she told University World News.

Further, for the four anti-science attitudes held in the general public, it is too late for science education. Accordingly, the authors propose strategies to counter each of the four anti-science biases.

To counteract the view that scientists as people are not trustworthy, the study suggests three main steps.

The perceived “coldness” of elite scientists can be countered by recruiting more females into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Scientists should also simplify their language and write “lay summaries” that should appear alongside the ubiquitous jargon-laden abstracts.

Because of the low level of scientific literacy among the general public, Philipp-Muller and her team say, scientists must don a teacher’s cap and “communicate to the public that substantive debate and disagreement are inherent in the scientific process” in clear and unambiguous terms, without falling into the false neutrality of what’s been dubbed “both sideism”.

Marketing and persuasion research show that being perceived as open to other points of view actually increases openness among recipients. Philipp-Muller’s team suggests “honestly acknowledging any drawbacks of their position [such as the infringement on rights by requirements to mask up because of COVID] while ultimately explaining in clear and compelling terms why their position is still the most supported or justifiable one”.

Countering the ingroup/outgroup attitude requires scientific communicators to find a shared social identity with their intended audience.

In one town, Philipp-Muller told me, proponents did not counter resistance to a water-recycling programme by piling up the scientific evidence for the plan. Rather, more people supported the proposal when the presenter emphasised the fact that she also lived in the same region and thus shared what’s called a “superordinate identity”.

One way to earn the trust of racialised communities that are wary of scientists is to “train marginalised individuals to be scientists working within their own communities”. In one paradigmatic project, to overcome the suspicions of the Indigenous community where the scientists were studying the human genome, researchers trained Indigenous individuals to be genome researchers.

On overcoming resistance to the scientific message itself, Philipp-Muller says: “I think science education can be a really useful tool for combating anti-science attitudes, especially with number three, which is when the scientific message’s evidence is contrary to a person’s belief.

“If we can get in and ensure that people have good scientific reasoning skills so that when they’re presented with new scientific information, they are able to assess whether or not it’s valid, that will help ensure that they can get on board with accurate and valid scientific information and also learn what kind of evidence is shaky.”

An appeal to values

A further strategy to combat anti-science attitudes triggered by the content of the message involves appealing to recipients’ deep-seated values.

The term Philipp-Muller and her co-authors use for this is “self-affirmation”, which has nothing New Agey about it and nothing to do with radical individualism. Rather, self-affirmation refers to a process during which people focus on the values that matter to them, such as caring for one’s family, in ways unrelated to the conflict or issue at hand.

The finding of common ground has the effect of reducing “cognitive dissonance” experienced when presented with scientific information that is contrary to one’s ingrained way of thinking.

Studies have shown that increasing an individual’s sense of self-integrity and security reduces the threat that dissonance poses to their sense of themselves. “Self-affirmation interventions have been used successfully,” says the article, “to reduce defensiveness and increase acceptance of scientific information regarding health behaviours and climate change.”

Philipp-Muller’s discussion of how to overcome the many mismatches between individuals’ epistemic styles and how scientists present scientific information is how the science behind marketing informs the proposals.

After noting that large tech companies use the “fine-grained, person-specific” data to target people to change their consumer behaviour and that consumer researchers learned long ago to use rich psychological and behavioural data to segment and target consumers, they suggest that “public interest groups could adopt similar strategies and use the logic of target communications with different audiences in mind”.

For example, abstract messages could be delivered to those who think abstractly and concrete messages for those who think concretely.

A timely intervention

Philipp-Muller and her co-authors’ analysis and prescriptions for countering anti-science attitudes could not be more timely.

I interviewed her on the morning of 27 July. A few hours later, Vic L McConought, a member of the Canadian Legislative Assembly (provincial parliament) who is running to be leader of the province’s United Conservative Party, which would make him Alberta’s next premier, tweeted about the leadership debate that evening.

Despite the fact that 87% of Albertans are vaccinated, he primed his Twitter followers by writing: “I assume the first question is about Science … My answer is ‘Science will be held to task for its crimes if I am elected leader’.”