It Isn’t What You Know, It’s What You Think You Know – Why Science Can Evoke Strong and Opposing Attitudes

Intense Debate Concept

Researchers survey why some people hold strong attitudes to science whilst others are more neutral.

Survey of over 2,000 adults in the UK identifies potential pitfalls of science communication.

Why do people hold highly variable attitudes towards well-evidenced science? For many years researchers focused on what people know about science, thinking that “to know science is to love it.” But do people who think they know science actually know science? A new study published on January 24th in the open access journal PLOS Biology by Cristina Fonseca of the Genetics Society, UK; Laurence Hurst of the Milner Centre for Evolution, University of Bath, UK; and colleagues, finds that people with strong attitudes tend to believe they understand science, while neutrals are less confident. Overall, the study revealed that people with strong negative attitudes to science tend to be overconfident about their level of understanding.

Whether it be vaccines, climate change, or GM foods, societally important science can evoke strong and opposing attitudes. Understanding how to communicate science requires an understanding of why people may hold such extremely different attitudes to the same underlying science. The new study performed a survey of over 2,000 UK adults, asking them both about their attitudes to science and their belief in their own understanding. A few prior analyses found that individuals that are negative towards science tend to have relatively low textbook knowledge but strong self-belief in their understanding. With this insight as foundational, the team sought to ask whether strong self-belief underpinned all strong attitudes.

The team focused on genetic science and asked attitudinal questions, such as: “Many claims about the benefits of modern genetic science are greatly exaggerated.” People could say how much they agreed or disagreed with such a statement. They also asked questions about how much they believe they understand about such science, including: “When you hear the term DNA, how would you rate your understanding of what the term means.” All individuals were scored from zero (they know they have no understanding) to one (they are confident they understand). The team discovered that those at the attitudinal extremes – both strongly supportive and strongly anti-science – have very high self-belief in their own understanding, while those answering neutrally do not.

Psychologically, the team suggest, this makes sense: to hold a strong opinion you need to strongly believe in the correctness of your understanding of the basic facts. The current team could replicate the prior results finding that those most negative tend also not to have high textbook knowledge. By contrast, those more accepting of science both believe they understand it and scored well on the textbook fact (true/false) questions.

When it was thought that what mattered most for scientific literacy was scientific knowledge, science communication focused on passing information from scientists to the public. However, this approach may not be successful, and in some cases can backfire. The present work suggests that working to address the discrepancies between what people know and what they believe they know may be a better strategy.

Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, President of the Genetics Society and co-author of the study comments, “Confronting negative attitudes towards science held by some people will likely involve deconstructing what they think they know about science and replacing it with more accurate understanding. This is quite challenging.”

Hurst concludes, “Why do some people hold strong attitudes to science whilst others are more neutral?  We find that strong attitudes, both for and against, are underpinned by strong self-confidence in knowledge about science.”

Reference: “People with more extreme attitudes towards science have self-confidence in their understanding of science, even if this is not justified” by Cristina Fonseca, Jonathan Pettitt, Alison Woollard, Adam Rutherford, Wendy Bickmore, Anne Ferguson-Smith and Laurence D. Hurst, 24 January 2023, PLOS Biology.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001915

The work was enabled by funding from The Genetics Society to the Chair of their Public Engagement committee (AW). No grant number specified. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

4 Comments on "It Isn’t What You Know, It’s What You Think You Know – Why Science Can Evoke Strong and Opposing Attitudes"

  1. I think it’s because the history of science tells us that no matter the evidence, you’re wrong. It’s a virtual certainty your idea will be falsified in time. People hate that. It’s like trying to stand on quicksand. Add in some confirmation bias and Dunning-Kruger effect, and that looks like what the study found, except I’m wrong.

    Science is still our best way of knowing and approaching the truth, but teaching a bunch of knowledge and vocabulary doesn’t teach science well. I think scientific literacy should start with its grounding philosophy of the scientific process — not just the hypothesis-experiment-observation-analysis-conclusion flowchart that tries to explain the method, but the whole process, what’s actually going on, the chaos and the ideas about that. Teach Popper and Kuhn and Lakatos, which is easier to do than memorizing the cell structures or the lanthanides & actinides. Students graduate without knowing what a scientific journal is, without having read a single study let alone compared or criticized them. People are told to ‘trust the science’, but they don’t know why it should command such deep respect, and if they did they’d not trust its results blindly anyway.

    • I should add it’s ‘actinoids’ now. I was taught ‘actinides’, but now I have to take delight in having been wrong, correcting, and being slightly less wrong now. That’s part of the scientific process, because some twits realized actinide is inaccurate, and it’s closer to the truth as ‘actinoid’, even though actinium technically can’t be an actinoid, so we’re all still wrong.

    • “It’s a virtual certainty your idea will be falsified in time.”
      It’s formally recognized as a “Paradigm Shift.”

      • Thomas Kuhn for the win! I’m more of a Popperian, myself. Lakatos did interesting things with Kuhn’s paradigms though, trying to make the theory compatible with Popper’s.

        These philosophical ideas give a deeper understanding of science. A child can memorize Roy G Biv, or names and dates everyone forgets by adulthood, but without understanding what’s happening, there’s low potential for lifelong scientific learning. That may seem unnecessary, but when it comes to ” vaccines, climate change, or GM foods, societally important science”, an understanding of how to approach science can save your life.

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