Breaking Down Science Denial

Photo Credit: Jack Moreh

Science denial has been a problem for humanity and sadly it’s still a problem today. Scientifically, we have come a long way‒our phones are now more powerful than the most advanced computers of the 50s, and soon enough artificial intelligence will be at the forefront of a lot of human endeavours‒even with the scale of humankind’s technological advances, there still remains a significant part of population that denies scientific tenets. It’s happening with vaccines, climate change, and astronomy. The reason for this might lie in a deep-seated psychological response that helps us manage uncomfortable information. And at its roots, science has always been about uncovering uncomfortable truths.

Science denial has persisted because of the desire of certain elements to maintain the status quo, be it for, religious, ideological and economic reasons. As a scientist, the increasing amount of science denial is quite alarming considering the places and people it is emanating from. Gone are the days when these ideas were basement discussions, now they have gone mainstream. A lot of policy makers and individuals with a lot of social pull are now espousing these ideals and are giving science denial an appeal that is both astounding and dangerous, it is frightening to think of the repercussions if the status quo continues.

We can’t discuss scientific denial without understanding some of the psychological processes that drive denial. Denial can be defined as the deliberate, often psychologically motivated, neglect of information that would be too upsetting or anxiety-provoking to allow into one’s psyche. It’s a way for people to complex issues easier to handle. People that eat meat, for example, might find a way to dismiss the idea that animals feel pain — a phenomenon psychologists refer to as the “meat paradox.” A similar justification can be seen in parents with an autistic child, they might choose to ignore the fact that the infamous “Lancet” study that linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism was later retracted for being incorrect, because they would prefer to blame something for their child’s disorder.

Varieties of denial include inattention, passive acknowledgment, reframing and wilful blindness. Studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important for the formation and nourishment of close social relationships. The same psychological processes that enable people to ignore a festering problem in their own households or lives are also the same ones that allow them to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal and it is these same highly-developed abilities that allow us to forgive. This capacity for denial was important for the survival of the human species, denial helped to reduce hypersensitivity to violations of trust in early human groups. In small groups, identifying liars and cheats is very important to the group’s survival and a few bad rumours could mean a loss of status or expulsion from the group, which in early human societies was essentially a death sentence.

One of the major motivations for science denial is self-interest, which is a good reason for scientific research not to be run primarily as a profit-making enterprise or by institutes with vested economic or ideological interests, to avoid conflict of interests further down the line. Another significant motivation for science denial is that scientific theories sometimes refutes some of our long-standing emotional biases. Emotions play a large role in our ability to interpret facts, and for development to occur we have to be able to control our emotions and make decisions based on facts. However, in the present day, fact-based decision-making has somewhat stalled and in some parts of the world isn’t making significant progress because a lot of decisions are overwhelmed by a myriad of emotional influences or ideologies that substitutes facts for beliefs, allowing people to more easily relegate facts to the background. The allure of denial lies in the fact that it allows us to ignore rather than face the painful restrictions and demands of reality but there is an immutable fact about denial: it does not work — long term. Reality always wins.

People deny science in a number of ways. Citing studies that disagree with the generally established facts is one of the techniques of science denial, citing these ‘fringe’ studies creates a dangerous ambiguity on the desired topic in the general psyche of the population. Any credible scientific thought is one with an overwhelming body of evidence on its side, the truth is one can always find a scientist with an outlier position due to a variety of reasons from faulty research methodology, data fabrication to studies that represent the interests of the funders which is an issue with studies financed by corporations to promote their interests. A similar science denial technique is by cherry picking certain scientific arguments or parts of arguments that fit a preconceived worldview and then using parts of the dialectic discourse to convince themselves and others. Cherry picking is also surprisingly rife amongst the highly educated and closely related to it is the appeal to non-authority which can lead to a reliance on sources with questionable or discredited expertise. Another technique of science denial is by spreading conspiracy theories, some science deniers use outlandish stories to argue against mainstream scientific theories. A popular conspiracy theory against science is that global warming isn’t real and that it is a ploy by some countries to reduce the industrial power of certain large economies, and indirectly take away jobs from its economy. To be successful, these conspiracy theories require an audience that, for whatever reasons, need validations for some of their ideologies, or a subject to blame for some of their misfortunes. A constant demand for new evidence when responding to established scientific notions especially when the base of the denial has been shown to be false is another way science deniers propagate their worldview.

The questions we need to ask ourselves are: why are people so receptive to these opinions? Why are so many individuals enamoured by charismatic figures who use conspiracy theories to divide the populace and further their agenda? From conflicting opinions on personal health and safety to disparate views on immigration, economic inequality and other social and political concerns, the rise of self-proclaimed experts especially those with social media acclaim has created even more tension to the already straining economic and cultural divides and in today’s highly chaotic world, it’s easy to turn towards denial to maintain views that make the most sense to us — whether they’re backed by facts or not. This problem is particularly pronounced now because of the large amount of information we are able to access — both the true and false. On numerous occasions, I have had discussions with people that believe some of the factually incorrect articles they read online just because it’s on the internet. To combat this problem, we need to develop a populace that is scientifically savvy, and consequently, one that is able to weigh and examine different opinions to determine their validity before imbibing them. The scientific community needs to promote scientific literacy across all levels of the educational system. Also, very important is the promotion of the cultural and social values of science. That doesn’t mean we should insist that the general populace blindly accept what scientific experts say and act accordingly. Rather, we need to draw people into the culture of science, so everyone can experience scientific discovery, which will help to foster a sense of excitement and passion about the scientific process.

In some cases, science denial is driven by religious beliefs. In others, a hopeful reliance on plain-old ‘common sense’ or intuition. In times when common sense fails to provide answers to more complicated issues, relying on the opinions of experts become important. This reliance on expert opinion gives some individuals cause for alarm, resulting in the rejection of scientific facts and theories, a phenomenon that can be described as some form of anti-intellectualism. The notion that the ‘average man’ knows best and that expert opinion is duplicitous forms a base for this brand of anti-intellectualism and flares up when people think their core values are under attack.

The media is also suspect in the promotion of science denial. The deluge of widely sourced information from media outfits bears equal authority which helps to create a type of “filter bubble,” that allows people to consume information that supports their preconceived notions, leading to a confirmation bias. Even the more respected media houses can be part of the problem, as the pursuit of balanced reporting results in giving equal airtime to the ‘other side’ regardless of their qualifications or expertise. The fractured and polarized media environment makes it easier for science deniers to easily turn reported facts into open questions.

Social biases also play a key role in science denial. We are social creatures, and as a result we put an effort into fitting into a society by moulding our opinions to better fit in with those of our peers, making us more likely to accept what our social groups believe leading to a form of social proof. Social proofs are very powerful and are more effective in shaping public opinion when compared with the use of fact-based proof, a phenomenon widely used in advertising. Whilst in a group of people espousing science denial, it is important to integrate one’s self into their social group and more importantly avoid presenting corrective information directly as it can indirectly strengthen their beliefs due to the emotional links of their world views. When we face new views, it creates an emotional discomfort and our brains enter a self-defence mode, a phenomenon known as the ‘boomerang effect’. To work around the boomerang effect, one has to avoid mentioning their misconceptions, but instead the facts should be presented in a way that doesn’t challenge their world view by using explanations that slightly resonate with their pre-existing views. Using a narrative dialogue is the most appropriate way to drive home one’s points and link cause and effect relationships, argumentative dialogues tend to make people clam up and defend their ideologies even in the face of irrefutable facts.

Science denial persists because the scientific community has unknowingly been drawn into a culture war that devalues intellectualism and expertise. The scientific community needs to fight back and reaffirm the value of scientific inquiry to the general society. After examining scientific denial and the forces that drive it, it would be prudent to discuss some of the popular examples of science denial and how we can combat them.

Climate change scepticism is one of the more significant examples of science denial, it is further exacerbated by the sheer volume of unequivocal or misleading information put out by industries and vested interests seeking to evade climate-related restrictions on their activities. These groups have managed to persuade the populace that anthropogenic global warming isn’t real and that any move from the utilization of carbon-laden fossil fuels will cause massive job loss in the energy sector and depress the economy. Faced with a threat to one’s livelihood, most people will easily rationalize away the science, especially if a handy set of “alternative” facts is readily available. I think that the key here is to develop an appreciation that while the science of climate change is compelling and should be accepted, science leaves open the question of how best to respond to the challenge it presents. This is where conservative, liberal, and economic ideas about regulation, mitigation, taxation and the role of the government should be competing — not on the validity of science itself, which in itself is shouldn’t be debated.

The anti-vaccine movement has also taken hold among population groups we generally identify as progressives along with those that have historically been against vaccines due to their deep suspicions about the activities of large corporations. Since the production of any new vaccine is a massive undertaking that runs into years, it only makes sense that large pharmaceutical companies are going to be the sources of vaccines for the foreseeable future. Given that many of these corporations are in the business to make a profit and not necessarily for the greater good, naturally suspicions about their motives and product quality might arise. Ironically, the success of vaccines has made it possible for some parents to doubt the benefits of vaccinating their children. Due to vaccinable diseases like measles and polio now being rare, it’s easy to conclude that children don’t need to be vaccinated against them. This attitude has produced substantial pools of non-vaccinated children in various communities around the world, reducing the inherent herd immunity in the population and providing conditions suitable for the re-emergence of diseases that should have been largely eliminated. To combat these issues, parents should be properly enlightened on the importance of vaccinations and the effect it has on communal health.

The idea of the Earth being flat is not new, having been a notion shared by a wide range of cultures dating all the way back to ancient Greece. Today, the Flat Earth movement has seen a resurgence, with the internet playing a large role in its revival. The Zetetic Method is a way individuals that believe in a flat earth justify their convictions, it is an alternative to the scientific method and was developed by a 19th-century flat-earther. In this method, sensory observations reign supreme. The method places a lot of emphasis on reconciling empiricism and rationalism, and making logical deductions based on empirical data. In Zetetic astronomy, the perception that Earth is flat leads to the deduction that it must be flat. It’s possible that some of those that believe in a flat earth see it as an epistemological exercise, whether as a critique of the scientific method or as a crude form of solipsism. These individuals should properly explain the reasons for their beliefs when discussing their theories in public to avoid passing across a wrong message to more easily influenced individuals.

A recent study by John Cook, Stephan Lewandowsky, and Ullrich K.H. Ecker published in PLoS One tests the power of inoculation against the types of misinformation that drives science denial. This study suggests that exposing people to the misleading argumentation techniques that drive science denial allows them to recognize and reject such bogus claims. The study focused specifically on the misinformation about climate change. The study investigated the ability of ‘inoculation’ to increase peoples’ resistance to the efforts to cast doubt on the 97% expert consensus on anthropogenic global warming and the false balance represented in the media. These two issues are connected — in climate stories, journalists often present arguments by climate scientists and climate deniers with equal weight, creating the perception of a 50/50 split when in reality, 97% of experts are on one side.

In one of the experiments, before showing people a media story with this kind of climate false balance, the authors first provided a group with information about the 97% expert consensus, explaining the misleading effects of a wrongly balanced media coverage. They found that in the group that was exposed only to the falsely balanced story, average perceived consensus, acceptance of human-caused climate change, trust in climate scientists, and support for climate policy all fell. When subjects were exposed to the false balance and told about the expert consensus, these factors all increased.

One of the unique elements of this study is that the investigators didn’t mention the myth they inoculated against. Instead, the general fallacy that misinformation and the use of fake experts to cast doubt on the expert consensus of a scientific topic was the only thing the study participants were told. This shows that explaining the techniques of denial can help people spot misleading ideas, and allow for a more scientific literate populace. We can also combat science denial by directly addressing misinformation and misconceptions in the classroom by teaching science especially at the secondary level through a misconception-based learning methodology where science is taught through a process that directly debunks science myths and misinformation. In short, the more we explain the techniques of science denial and misinformation, the more people will become resistant to them. When people become exposed to examples of people using cherry picking or fake experts or false balance to mislead the public, it becomes easier to recognize those techniques, and makes them likely to fall for these techniques in the future.

More scientists have to take up political appointments and more importantly run for office so they can also shape and pass policies that are science friendly which will invariably reduce science denial in the general population. The notion that science has no place in politics is dangerous; science should hold an important place in national development. Fighting science denial requires that we acknowledge its presence and effects on our society and have honest conversations about it. Freedom of inquiry, freedom to communicate and collaborate are the necessary prerequisites of a vibrant scientific enterprise, and while freedom of speech is based on respecting other people’s values and opinions, incontrovertible truths do exist and should be treated as such. We should remember that societies which attempt to shackle or restrict scientific inquiry, usually end up with no science at all. And that is not a world we should want to live in.