Science Denial: Its Psychology and What You Need to Know

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In 2020, science denial was deadly. Many politicians failed to support the prevention strategies that scientists believed to be most effective. People died of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. Yet, many people thought it didn’t exist.

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How Science Denial Happens and What You Can Do About It


Science denial isn’t new. Understanding why people reject, question, or refuse scientific explanations is essential. And what you can do to overcome these barriers.

We offer solutions and ways to help you understand and fight the problem in our book Science Denial: Why it Happens and How to Avoid It. We are both research psychologists and know everyone is vulnerable to it. We also know that there are solutions.

Here are tips for dealing with five psychological issues that can lead you to science denial.

Challenge #1: Social Identity

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Social beings are inclined to identify with others with similar values and beliefs. Social media can increase the power of alliances. You will likely see only what you agree with and fewer alternative views. The information bubbles powerful algorithms create for people are where they live.

If you hear misinformation from your friends, it is more likely that you will believe it and then share it. Science denial is a growing problem as misinformation spreads.


Action #1: Every person can have multiple identities. One of us spoke with a climate denier and discovered he was also a grandparent. When thinking about his grandchildren’s future, he opened up and discussed economic concerns, which is the root cause of his denial. Maybe someone is vaccine-hesitant, as are the mothers in her child’s playgroup. But she is also caring and concerned about immunocompromised kids.

It has been a success for us to listen to other people’s concerns and find common ground. People who have more in common with you are more persuasive than people with whom they don’t. You can leverage another identity to establish a connection if one identity prevents science acceptance.


Challenge #2: Mental Shortcuts

Everyone is busy, and it would be exhausting to be a vigilant deep thinker all the time. Clickbait headlines such as “Eat Chocolate to Live Longer” are commonplace online. You share them because you believe them to be accurate, like it is, or you think they are ridiculous.

Action #2: Instead of sharing the article about GMOs being unhealthy, slow down and watch for “System 1 thinking” by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Instead, turn on System 2’s rational, analytical mind and ask yourself: “How can I tell this is true?” “Is this possible?” “What makes me believe it?” Do some fact-checking. Confirmation bias is when you accept information that you already believe.


Challenge #3: Your beliefs about how and what to know.

Everybody has ideas about knowledge, its source, and who to trust. Some people believe that there is always a right and a wrong. Scientists see tentativeness as a characteristic of their discipline. Some people might need to be aware that scientific claims can change as more evidence accumulates. This could lead to distrust in public health policy around COVID-19.

Journalists who present both sides of settled scientific agreements may unknowingly convince readers that science is less specific than it is. This can turn balance into bias. Only 57% of Americans believe that climate change has been caused by human activity. This compares with 97% of climate scientists and 55% of Americans who think scientists know that it is.

Action #3: Recognize that others (or you) might have misguided beliefs about science. It is possible to help them adopt what Lee McIntyre, philosopher of science, calls “philosopher of science. “A scientific attitude and willingness to accept new evidence and to change your mind.

Recognize that not all individuals can rely on one authority to provide knowledge and expertise. For example, doctors have successfully countered vaccine hesitancy by convincingly refuting erroneous beliefs and by friends who explain why their views changed. For instance, clergy can be a catalyst for change, and many have set up vaccination hubs at places of worship.


Challenge #4: Motivated Reasoning

It might seem strange that how you interpret a graph can depend on your political beliefs. When people were asked to view the same charts, they saw that interpretations varied depending on political affiliation. Progressives were more likely to misinterpret graphs that showed a rise in CO2 than those that displayed housing costs. Conservatives were more likely to make mistakes than progressives. Their reasoning needs to be revised when people don’t just look at facts but also use an unconscious bias to reach a preferred conclusion.

Action #4: You may believe that eating foods made from genetically modified organisms can be harmful to your health. But have you actually looked at the evidence? Take the time to read both the pro and cons of the information. Then, look at the source and consider the evidence. You can reduce your motivation and be more open to new information if you take the time to think and reason.


Challenge #5: Emotions, Attitudes

Many children and adults reacted with anger and opposition to Pluto’s demotion from a dwarf planet. Attitudes and emotions are closely linked. Suppose you hear that humans have an impact on the climate. In that case, your reactions can be anything from anger (if it is not true) to frustration (if it is accurate and you are worried about it) to anxiety and despair (if it is happening, but you don’t believe it’s possible to fix it). Depending on whether you support or oppose climate mitigation or GMO labeling, how you feel will determine your opinion.

Action #5: Recognize the importance of emotions when making decisions about science. You might react strongly to stories about stem cells used in Parkinson’s treatment. But, consider whether you are too hopeful for a relative with the disease. Are you refusing to accept a potentially lifesaving therapy out of emotion?

You can’t put feelings in a box that isn’t related to how you think about science. Recognizing and understanding that emotions can be integrated into science learning and thinking is essential. If you feel negative about a science topic, ask yourself if that is the case. Then, take time to think, reason, and feel about it.

These five psychological issues can make anyone vulnerable to science denial, doubt, and resistance. Recognizing these challenges is the first step to taking action to address them.


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