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Scepticism of science explained

Scepticism of science is on the rise, and influential people are touting personal beliefs and unfounded claims as fact. Using interviews and meta-analysis of existing research on science scepticism, psychologists are getting to the bottom of why we choose to ignore overwhelming scientific evidence in favour of our own beliefs.

It’s not ignorance. The notion that we need only educate people more, and then they will believe the science, is both unfounded and incorrect. Educated people also cling on to misconceptions, despite curated, peer-reviewed information literally being at anyone’s fingertips.

It’s not about people outright denying facts, either. It’s more subtle than that. Troy Campbell, a social psychologist at the University of Oregon, has found that “people treat facts as relevant more when the facts tend to support their opinions.

“When the facts are against their opinions, they don’t necessarily deny the facts, but they say the facts are less relevant”.

This cherry-picking of facts reinforces misconceptions. According to Dan Kahan from Yale University, it is becoming more of a problem now, when scientific facts are being wielded like weapons by political and cultural leaders, for personal gain rather than in the public’s best interest.

This has important implications for science communication. We must first identify the core beliefs of sceptics, and “tailor the message so that it aligns with their motivation”, says Matthew Hornsey from the University of Queensland.

Finding a mutual point of agreement and building your message around this can lead to much better results than simply listing facts, and hoping they stick.

At least, that’s what the scientists are saying. Ironically, it’s up to you whether you believe them or not.

Image: Free Great Photo

By Réka Nagy

I am a PhD student at the MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. I use large family-based datasets to unravel how genetics shapes our health. When I’m not busy writing scripts and analysing data, I communicate science through various formats. I’ve recently started designing my own evolution-themed board game using the prize from “I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!”.

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