Living in denial

A good dose of skepticism is a healthy thing. But why do some people outright reject scientific consensus on data?

 Illustration by Zoe Gillett

Illustration by Zoe Gillett

What’s really interesting is that when I then presented scientific evidence to them, their distrust was strengthened, and they became more distrustful.
— John Cook

There are some theories that the scientific community and the broader general population have accepted as certainties, such as climate change, evolution, and the safety and benefits of vaccination and GMOs. The data are in and consistently point toward the same conclusions; yet a small percentage of the population continues to reject scientific evidence, often defying logic and reason. So exactly what motivates people, often with little expertise on a given subject, to hold on to beliefs that have been disproven by science? Is a bit of skepticism healthy, or should we be concerned?   

Working out what motivates a science denier is not straightforward. This is partly because they are not a homogenous group: they have different reasons and motivations for rejecting evidence. Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland and creator of the website Skeptical Science, John Cook said that at the heart of science denialism there is “a conflict between personal ideology and scientific evidence, and individuals are uniquely motivated depending on the area of science they are rejecting”. 

For instance, a climate change denier may be motivated by political ideology, such as a belief in free markets or small government, whereas a person who doesn’t believe in evolution might tightly hold religious beliefs in creationism. In the case of vaccination, individuals may have an aversion to government interference, and those against GMOs often have a strong aversion to technology and scientific advancement. 

 
  Some science deniers refuse to consider any evidence for the safety and benefits of vaccines.   Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Some science deniers refuse to consider any evidence for the safety and benefits of vaccines. Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Although science deniers each have unique motivations, Cook says one thing they have in common is conspiratorial thinking.  His research with psychologist Dr Stephan Lewandowsky found that people who deny climate science are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. A belief in different conspiracy theories has been associated with low self-esteem and a distrust of authority. This helps describe the disposition of those more likely to reject science, but still doesn’t tell us why they reject consistent lines of evidence. 

A personal belief in something forms a starting point, but when scientific evidence enters into the equation, most would expect a rational person to change or modify their views in accordance with scientific consensus. This is where a science denier’s thinking patterns differentiate, because they are compelled to deny the science rather than change their position when data threaten their belief system.

As a part of his research, Cook conducted surveys to study attitudes towards climate change and climate scientists. He found the primary motivation for rejecting scientific evidence is a deep-rooted distrust of scientists within a particular field. 

“The more they deny the climate science, the higher the distrust of climate scientists,” Cook said. Presenting scientific evidence to climate change deniers, which Cook stressed is a small group, but one with very strong beliefs, has very little effect and can be seen as counter-productive. “What’s really interesting is that when I then presented scientific evidence to them, their distrust was strengthened, and they became more distrustful,” he said.

Scientific consensus and skepticism

While there are many ways statistical errors may occur when analysing data, it is hard for researchers or analysts to reject an idea that has reached scientific consensus – defined by GreenFacts as “the position generally agreed upon at a given time by most scientists specialised in a given field”. 

However, if the evidence just isn’t there, a conclusion may be reversed. An example of this occurred in our early understandings of plate tectonics. “At one point, there was a general belief among the scientific community that the earth was fairly static, but there wasn’t very much evidence for that at the time,” said Cook. “As the evidence started to build, gradually the scientific community shifted their view toward accepting there were these plates moving across the surface of the earth”.

 
  Developments in understandings of plate tectonics were accepted easily by the scientific community because of  lack of evidence to the contrary.   Vytautas Šėrys/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Developments in understandings of plate tectonics were accepted easily by the scientific community because of  lack of evidence to the contrary. Vytautas Šėrys/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Cook said the current debate around climate change differs from this shift in consensus. “What you’ve got is not only a scientific community agreeing about it, but also many different lines of evidence, which is quite different to plate tectonics where you just didn’t have that evidence,” he said. “Once the different lines of evidence build up, it becomes less and less likely that the scientific consensus will be overturned.”

But the scientific method of continually questioning perceived truths means that skepticism plays an important role in scientific progress. “Skepticism is at the heart of what science is all about, and by skepticism I mean taking an evidence-based approach, and not drawing conclusions until you’ve looked at all the evidence,” said Cook. Importantly, skepticism is distinct from denialism. “Denial is the polar opposite; it’s about coming to a conclusion first, based on your beliefs, and then treating the evidence accordingly: rejecting threatening evidence and only accepting evidence that’s consistent with your beliefs,” he said.

Money, money, money

Another reason commonly cited for rejecting science is the involvement of financial or corporate interests, particularly with regard to climate change. It was recently reported that between 2003 and 2010, climate denial organisations in the US received over $764m through third party funds that have been heavily linked to fossil fuel-based companies, therefore providing these organisations with a powerful financial incentive to deny irrefutable evidence. To a layperson with a predisposed distrust of science, these organisations could be seen as a legitimate source of information.

Therein lies another problem, as credence is given to science skeptics who seem like reputable sources. Recently in Australia, students and activists rallied and campaigned against a proposed Australian Consensus Centre, because of the involvement of controversial climate change skeptic Bjørn Lomborg. Although Lomborg's views on climate change, fossil fuels and economics have been widely discredited, his credentials are seemingly impressive, and are enough to attract the interest of academics and professionals. 

 
  Some public figures who aim to refute scientific consensus, such as Bjørn Lomborg, have a strong following despite their lack of credibility.   TED Conference/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Some public figures who aim to refute scientific consensus, such as Bjørn Lomborg, have a strong following despite their lack of credibility. TED Conference/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

This phenomenon is not exclusive to climate change. Other prominent figures have spoken to a range of issues in a way that suggests science denialism. Hollywood celebrities, including Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, continue to argue for a link between vaccines and autism, despite scientific consensus to the contrary. Another example is the scientific and celebrity skepticism against fluoridation, despite consensus on its benefits and safety among the wider scientific community. Regardless of their scientific credibility, recognisable figures are able to influence others, and this may contribute to the rejection of science. 

So, what can be done about science denialism, when there are so many forces working against rational engagement with credible data? We know that providing contrary evidence to science deniers only leads to a strengthening of their position, but there is another method more likely to soften a denier’s point of view. According to Cook, psychological inoculation can be effective, which aims to “build resistance to science denial by exposing people to a weak form of science denial”. This is achieved by educating a science denier on the characteristics of denialism, such as selectivity of data and use of logical fallacies, and then applying this knowledge to another scenario. In this way, the denier builds resistance to misinformation disguised as truth. “Once people understand the techniques used to distort the science, they can reconcile the myth with the fact,” said Cook.

While inoculation to science denial is a promising area of research, it is unlikely that all science deniers will be reached in the near future. So it is reassuring to note that this is a relatively small group. In 2011 the CSIRO found that only 7% of Australian survey respondents did not believe the climate is changing, and according to the Australian Government Department of Health only 1.77% of the population were conscientious objectors to vaccination in 2014. So even though these groups are strongly influenced by ideological beliefs, a distrust of scientists, financial interests or outsider influence, and despite the fact that it is very difficult to change a science denier’s mind on any given issue, scientific progress will continue to be made. The true skeptics will make sure of it.

Edited by Deborah Kane