Psychologists Work to Enlighten Science Skeptics

(CN) – Psychological researchers working to understand the factors that cause otherwise intelligent people to resist scientific messages have developed a theoretical framework for making efforts to communicate about science more effective.

Presenting their findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the team explains how people protect their “pet beliefs” when processing information, which manifests in what co-author Matthew Hornsey calls “thinking like a lawyer.”

While these individuals are just as educated and interested in science as people who exhibit less skepticism toward such information, the team argues that people cherry-pick which pieces of information to focus on in order to validate their existing views.

“We find that people will take a flight from facts to protect all kinds of beliefs including their religious beliefs, their political beliefs, and even simple personal beliefs such as whether they are good at choosing a web browser,” co-author Troy Campbell said.

Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School, adds that “the deposition is to construe evidence in identity-congruent rather than truth-congruent ways, a state of disorientation that is pretty symmetric across the political spectrum.”

Merely presenting evidence or data is not enough to change a skeptic’s mind about a particular topic, as people focus on facts that support their opinion, while downplaying information that refutes it.

“We find that people treat facts as relevant more when the facts tend to support their opinions,” Campbell said. “When the facts are against their opinions, they don’t necessarily deny the facts, but they say the facts are less relevant.”

In order to break through these individuals’ science skepticism, the team recommends trying to identify the underlying motivations.

“Rather than taking on people’s surface attitudes directly, tailor the message so that it aligns with their motivation,” Hornsey said. “With climate skeptics, for example, you find out what they can agree on and then frame climate messages to align with that.”

Kahan’s recent research shows that a person’s level of scientific curiosity could help promote more open-minded engagement, and findings that are especially surprising – even if the information counters their political beliefs – limit science skepticism.

The team also notes that its findings are preliminary and require additional research to confirm.

“Where there is conflict over societal risks – from climate to nuclear-power safety to impacts of gun control laws, both sides invoke the mantle of science,” Kahan said.


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