Knowing more doesn’t change false beliefs about science

If someone’s predisposed to having false beliefs on science, giving them more information rarely does any good.

Americans’ stance on climate change is largely influenced by their political beliefs. Image credits: HelloImNik / Flickr.

Science vs Religion/Politics

We’ve all experienced it in some form or another. The uncle who’s going on about aliens creating the pyramids. The government making GMOs to poison us. Chemtrails. The long, sinuous arms of pseudoscience reach all corners of the planet (which according to some, is flat) — and no matter how hard you try, it often seems impossible to fight them. Well, according to a new study, providing more information and using regular arguments just doesn’t cut it.

The problem is people associate scientific facts with religious and political beliefs. Point in case: often when we write an article about climate change, we’ll be labeled ‘leftists’ in the comment section. Somehow, in the minds of many people, the reality of climate change, a proven, well-documented and verifiable scientific fact, has become a political topic associated with the left side of the spectrum — even though it’s not. The same goes for evolution, for instance. For over a century, countless studies have not only provided support for evolution but also made predictions based on it — predictions which came true. Everything biologists do nowadays is done in the light of evolution, and you’d expect most people to accept it. But especially for religious people, that doesn’t stand true.

So this is where we are. Religion and politics shape what we believe about intrinsic science.

More is less

Carnegie Mellon social scientists wanted to see if knowing more reduces people’s illogical beliefs. They looked at six controversial topics: stem cell research, the Big Bang theory, nanotechnology, GMOs, climate change and evolution.

“Although Americans generally hold science in high regard and respect its findings, for some contested issues, such as the existence of anthropogenic climate change, public opinion is polarized along religious and political lines. We ask whether individuals with more general education and greater science knowledge, measured in terms of science education and science literacy, display more (or less) polarized beliefs on several such issues.”

On all six topics, people who trust the scientific enterprise more are also more likely to accept its findings. But that’s not really the issue here.

They found a strong correlation between people’s opinion on these six scientific topics and their religious/political beliefs. Stem cell research, the big bang, and evolution correlated with both political and religious stances, while climate change correlated with political stances (remember how we’re called ‘leftists’ for discussing climate change).

They also found that the views of polarized people don’t really change with more education. Instead, if someone has a polarized view on these topics, the odds are his view is only going to get more polarized. We don’t really know why this is happening, though researchers have a few ideas. Baruch Fischhoff, one of the lead authors, expressed his concern regarding their findings.

“These are troubling correlations. We can only speculate about the underlying causes. One possibility is that people with more education are more likely to know what they are supposed to say, on these polarized issues, in order to express their identity. Another possibility is that they have more confidence in their ability to argue their case.”

It’s not about the science, unfortunately

The Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey might be shaping more than our political beliefs.

All this puts together a troubling picture. It basically says that when people argue about controversial science topics, they’re not really arguing about the science itself. They’re projecting their personal beliefs onto scientific topics, and greatly polarize this. Learning more about these topics doesn’t really do much to defeat pseudoscience, which leaves us in a difficult situation.

If we want to convince people of an objective truth, we might have to go way beyond that objective truth.

“We would love to be able to understand what is causing the relationship we observe between education and polarization, and how certain science topics got so polarized in the first place,” Drummond said. “Disagreements about science seem to be about more than the science itself, but also what the science’s implications are for a person’s identity.”

Also, it’s important to note that the study was only carried on Americans. The two-party electoral college system is not very popular elsewhere in the world, and it may very well encourage bypartizanthip, prodding people to pick one side or another and challenge each other. We don’t really know why any of this is happening but for now, one thing’s for sure: we have to address the way we present science to Americans.

Journal Reference: Caitlin Drummond, Baruch Fischhoff. Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017; 201704882 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1704882114

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