It isn't what you know, it's what you think you know

January 29, 2023

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It isn't what you know, it's what you think you know

Why do people hold highly variable attitudes towards well-evidenced science? For many years researchers focused on what people know about science, perhaps thinking that “to know science is to love it”. But do people who think they know science actually know much about the science they are spouting on about?

The new study published in the open access journal PLOS Biology a team of international researchers finds that people with strong attitudes generally tend to believe they understand science, while people with strong negative attitudes to science tend to be the most overconfident about their level of understanding.

Whether it be vaccines, climate change or GM foods, societally important science can evoke strong and opposing attitudes. Understanding how to communicate science, or anything really, requires an understanding of why people may hold such extremely different attitudes to the same underlying issue. The new study surveyed over 2,000 UK adults, asking them both about their attitudes to science and their belief in their own understanding. A few prior analyses found that individuals that are negative towards science tend to have relatively low textbook knowledge but strong self-belief in their understanding. With this insight as foundational, the team sought to ask whether strong self-belief underpinned all strong attitudes.

The team focused on genetic science and asked attitudinal questions, such as: “Many claims about the benefits of modern genetic science are greatly exaggerated.” People could say how much they agreed or disagreed with such a statement. They also asked questions about how much they believe they understand about such science, including: “When you hear the term DNA, how would you rate your understanding of what the term means.” All individuals were scored from zero (they know they have no understanding) to one (they are confident they understand). The team discovered that those at the attitudinal extremes – both strongly supportive and strongly anti-science – have very high self-belief in their own understanding, while those answering neutrally do not.

Psychologically, the team suggest, this makes sense: to hold a strong opinion you need to strongly believe in the correctness of your understanding of the basic facts. The current team could replicate the prior results finding that those most negative tend also not to have high textbook knowledge. By contrast, those more accepting of science both believe they understand it and scored well on the textbook fact (true/false) questions.

In the days—not so long ago—when it was thought that what mattered most for scientific literacy was scientific knowledge, science communication focused on passing information from scientists to the public. However, today this approach may not be successful, and in some cases can backfire. The present work suggests that working to address the discrepancies between what people know and what they believe they know may be a better strategy.

What the researchers say: “Confronting negative attitudes towards science held by some people will likely involve deconstructing what they think they know about science and replacing it with more accurate understanding,” commented the study’s co-author. “This is quite challenging.”

She concludes, “Why do some people hold strong attitudes to science whilst others are more neutral? We find that strong attitudes, both for and against, are underpinned by strong self confidence in knowledge about science.”

So, what? The importance of this study lies in its confirmation of what most scientists who attempt to communicate with the public have found, and which many psychological studies have proved. Our beliefs and assumptions are more important to our sense of self than our knowledge.

However, I think the study has a design flaw.

Many of our core assumptions, beliefs and biases are entirely subconscious. Therefore, a survey cannot possibly discover what people rationally believe. What’s more, many of the anti-science positions people defend are those which enable them to belong to groups, religions, or political parties that espouse them. The survey therefore can perhaps tell you more about their attachments than their beliefs.

A Republican in Mississippi may vigorously defend their anti-abortion, or anti-vaccine, or anti-mask views—even if they have grave doubts. A number of studies have shown that the graver the doubts, or the more fragile the attachment, the more strident the defence.

Lastly, if you attack someone’s strongly held opinion, the brain sees this as an attack on them, on their sense of personhood. They will defend themselves (and their belief) by claiming superior knowledge to the questioner. The more unsure they are, the more fragile in their attachments, the more certain knowledge they will claim.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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