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Researchers: If We Tell Folks More About Science, They Trust Less

Part 3: The researchers argue that doubts about science arise from conflict with beliefs. The many COVID-19 debacles suggest other causes…

We’ve been looking (here and here) at a summary at a science news site of a paper that bemoans the decline of trust in science. The author did a good job and doubtless means well. But the outcome — unintentionally — typifies the reasons so many people distrust claims made on behalf of science. For example, the third factor for distrust that we are asked to consider is that information we learn from science sources can go against our personal beliefs:

“Scientific information can be difficult to swallow, and many individuals would sooner reject the evidence than accept information that suggests they might have been wrong,” the team wrote in their paper. “This inclination is wholly understandable, and scientists should be poised to empathize.”

So key strategies to counter this include showing an understanding of the other person’s viewpoint.

Tessa Koumondoros, “These 4 Factors Can Explain Why So Many People Are Rejecting Science” at ScienceAlert (July 16, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.

But how can researchers who seem entirely convinced that they are correct “show an understanding” of the other person’s viewpoint — which they perceive to be wrong and dangerous?

Coronavirus, covid-19 news headlines on United States of America 100 dollar bills. Concept of financial impact, stock market decline and crash due to worldwide pandemic

Take school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many official sources insisted that they were following the science in shutting down schools for many months. Most people who gave the matter any thought knew that, generally, children and young adults were not at high risk of dying from COVID-19 — and the learning loss from school closures was quite significant.

It may not be researchers’ fault that “the science” was grievously misrepresented by others. But they still have a lot of ground to make up with the thoughtful proportion of the public. And the next insight shared is hardly going to help:

Counterintuitively, increasing someone’s general scientific literacy can actually backfire, because it provides the skill to better bolster their pre-existing beliefs. Increasing scientific reasoning and media literacy skills, prebunking, or inoculating people against misinformation are advised instead, as is framing information in line with what matters to your audience and using relatable personal experiences.

Tessa Koumondoros, “These 4 Factors Can Explain Why So Many People Are Rejecting Science” at ScienceAlert (July 16, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.

This sounds so much like: Don’t rely on telling people how to think about science; try “inoculating people against misinformation” which, in the context, sounds like: Come up with more convincing propaganda.

The trouble is, the COVID pandemic was practically a laboratory experiment in watching claims about science self-destruct. People who noticed probably won’t forget. And their science literacy may well have increased in a way no one anticipated: a much deeper agnosticism about claims made in science’s name.

Historically, the solution to loss of trust in such cases is reform of the system, not of its doubters.

Next: Part 4: If only information were presented in the right learning style!


Note: The paper, which requires a subscription, is “Why are people antiscience, and what can we do about it?” by Aviva Philipp-Muller, Spike W. S. Lee, and Richard E. Petty, July 12, 2022, PNAS 119 (30) e2120755119 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2120755119


Here are all four parts of the series:

Square letters with text DOUBT and TRUST
  1. Why many now reject science… do you really want to know? COVID demonstrated — as nothing else could — that the “science” was all over the map and didn’t help people avoid panic. As the panic receded, the government started setting up a disinformation board to target NON-government sources of panic, thus deepening loss of trust.
  2. Researchers: Distrust of science is due to tribal loyalty. In Part 2 of 4, we look at a claim arising from a recent study: We blindly believe those we identify with, ignoring the wisdom of science. There seems to be no recognition that researchers, however fiercely competitive among themselves, also have a tribal loyalty that skews their judgment.
  3. Researchers: If we tell folks more about science, they trust less. Part 3: The researchers argue that doubts about science arise from conflict with beliefs. The many COVID-19 debacles suggest other causes…
    Generally, the remedy for loss of trust after widespread failures is reform of the system, not reform of its doubters. Post-COVID, scientists should take heed.
  4. Claim: If science were properly presented, trust would grow! The ideas examined in these four short essays all assume that scientists are exempt from the bias and self-interest that governs everyone else. We’re asked to believe that scientists are somehow exempt from the bias problem ingrained in our biology — yet they have the same biology as everyone else…

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Researchers: If We Tell Folks More About Science, They Trust Less