Column: Why some distrust science – The Morning Sun

Our country  ̶  our world has been stressed to various limits. The global pandemic, climate extremes, withdrawal from Afghanistan, domestic terrorism, and related dilemmas are part of every news cycle. Valid science offers aid to reduce or eliminate, yet many reject it.

Bastiaan T. Rutjens, assistant professor at the psychology department of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands has done considerable research on why so many refuse to heed it. One cause is the type of education doubters received. Poorer schools do not emphasize science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Thus, students lack the basics that allow them to understand the physical world, and how technology contributes to everyday life.

Often politicians take advantage of this misunderstanding, spreading fear and doubt among their followers. This is magnified by social media with disinformation. Climate deniers, for example, tend to be under-educated, older conservatives. Anti-vaxxers, on the other hand are more diverse. This is due to the history of medical experimentation on Black subjects that make many doubt its authenticity. Similar factors lead to the rejection of anthropogenic climate change, or fear that eating genetically modified products is dangerous, or belief that vaccines cause autism.

Rutjens and his associates have conducted research exploring the mistrust of science. They identified four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables intercorrelate quite strongly. This suggests that one of these factors can dominate one’s beliefs.

They tested a large sample of North Americans who were given statements to evaluate (eg: climate change: ‘Human CO2 emissions cause climate change; ’genetic modification: ‘GM of foods is a safe and reliable technology; and vaccination: ‘I believe that vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination for children’). Participants could indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with these statements. They were also given a true/false science literacy test.

Political ideology did not play a strong role when it came to most of the outcomes. Political conservatives, however, expressed science skepticism about climate-change. The worse people did on the scientific literacy test, the more skeptical they were about the safety of genetically modified food. Vaccine skepticism was strongest among religious participants. Indeed, religious orthodoxy correlated negatively with trust in science.

Skepticism comes in many forms. Simply “educating” doubters may not be enough. Since this would conflict with what they have held to be true for so long can bring about cognitive dissonance, defined as the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. To alleviate this requires a change in action and belief. Convince them to add one or two valid news sources to their routine. After a bit have them compare what they have seen and heard. Which sound more reasonable? Provide a friendly tutor on science literacy. A former doubter would be a good choice. Convince them that what they are doing as a consequence of their beliefs is harmful to themselves, their family, their friends and their community.

The global pandemic, climate extremes, withdrawal from Afghanistan, domestic terrorism, and related dilemmas require realistic solutions. The political climate has become nearly intractable. Social media have clouded many minds making the truth almost indistinguishable from “alternative facts”.

Doubters are often a part of the problems we face. Doubt can lead to anger and hatred. We see too much violence around us. We must all chose to be part of the solution. We must become again the UNITED States of America. Let reason channel emotions, cool tempers, and find sound answers before our society fragments.

Ed Fisher writes a weekly column for the Morning Sun.

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