January 31, 2023

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Historically, the scientific community has relied on public education to increase consistency with scientific consensus. New research from Portland State University suggests why this approach has yielded only mixed results.

“Human opposition to scientific consensus is an extremely important topic. For years, smart people thought the way to bring people more in line with scientific consensus was to teach them the knowledge they didn’t have,” said Nick Light, a PSU assistant professor of marketing. “Unfortunately, educational interventions have not worked very well.”

Light’s research entitled “Knowledge Overconfidence Is Associated With Anti-Consensus Views On Controversial Scientific Issues,” was recently published in scientific progress.

“Our research suggests there may be a problem that overconfidence gets in the way of learning because when people think they know a lot, they have minimal motivation to learn more,” Light said. “People with more extreme anti-scientific attitudes may need to learn about their relative ignorance of the issues before learning specific scientific knowledge.”

The paper explored attitudes on eight scientific-consensus issues that still have anti-consensus views: climate change, nuclear energy, genetically modified food, the Big Bang, evolution, vaccination, homeopathic medicine, and COVID-19. Light said they found that as people’s attitudes on an issue deviate further from scientific consensus, their assessment of their own knowledge of that issue increases, but their factual knowledge decreases. Take, for example, COVID-19 vaccines. The less a person agrees with the COVID-19 vaccine, the more he thinks he knows about it, but his actual knowledge is likely lower.

“Essentially, the people who are the most extreme in their opposition to the consensus are the most overconfident in their knowledge,” Light said. “Our findings suggest that this pattern is quite common, but we haven’t found it for climate change, evolution or the big bang theory.”

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The degree to which attitudes about an issue are tied to political or religious identities can influence whether this pattern exists for that issue, Light added.

“For climate change, for example, liberals tend to take a stance in line with science, while on an issue like genetically modified food, liberals and conservatives tend to be fairly divided in their support or opposition,” he said. “It may be that when we know that our in-groups feel strongly about a problem, we don’t think much about our knowledge of the problem.”

The consequences of these anti-consensus views are widespread, including property destruction, malnutrition, financial hardship and death. Educational interventions to change minds may not work unless individuals first gain an accurate picture of their own knowledge of the complexity of a problem.

“The challenge then becomes to find appropriate ways to convince people who oppose the consensus that they are probably not as knowledgeable as they think they are,” Light said.

Shifting the focus from individual knowledge to the influence of experts is a possibility put forward by Light and his co-authors. The strength of social norms, despite personal views, is also of great influence. In Japan, for example, many people wore COVID-19 transmission-limiting masks, not to reduce personal risk, but to conform to a societal norm.

“People tend to do what they think their community expects of them,” Light said. While blindly following the consensus is generally not recommended, it is society’s duty to try to change its mind in favor of the scientific consensus when anti-consensus attitudes create dangerous situations for the community.

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Opponents of genetically modified food know less than they think, study shows

More information:
Nicholas Light et al, Overconfidence in knowledge is associated with anti-consensus views on controversial scientific issues, scientific progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciaadv.abo0038

Provided by Portland State University

Quote: Overconfidence strengthens anti-scientific views, study finds (2022, July 21) retrieved July 21, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-07-overtrust-bolsters-anti-scientific-views.html

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