There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical. There is, however, a difference between skeptical claims without substantial evidence to back them up, and being a skeptic on vaccines or human-driven climate change.
Both are backed up by a gigantic mountain of facts, so why are certain groups of people still keen to rally against them? A new study gives a clue, linking pre-existing beliefs in spirituality, religion, and political ideas with such forms of science denial.
The study, by researchers from the Universities of Amsterdam, Kent, and the VU University in Amsterdam, explains that “religiosity, political orientation, morality, and science understanding” are the main predictors of whether or not someone accepts a scientific consensus.
Importantly, however, different ideologies are correlated with the acceptance of different types of consensus.
If you’re a climate change skeptic, for example, you’re more likely than not to be a political conservative. If you wonder if vaccines are safe or not, you probably have concerns about moral purity.
If you’re a skeptic about GM crops, it’s most likely because you don’t have much trust in science, or you lack a scientific literacy. (Yes, you can be wary of how conglomerates handle ownership of certain GM crop strains, but there's no convincing evidence at present that the crops themselves aren't safe.)
As expected, those that are staunch religious conservatives “consistently display a low faith in science and an unwillingness to support science” across the board.
This research highlights that scientific knowledge is not always directly correlated with acceptance of it. Thanks to plenty of other “ideological antecedents” – those pre-existing belief systems – it’s a little more complicated than that.
This suggests that, for example, if you want to convince your anti-vaxxer friend that vaccines are nothing to be afraid of, it may take a little more than factual information to succeed.
This research, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, involved a pilot experiment and three subsequent studies.
The participants, from a range of ages, demographics, and with a plethora of beliefs, were asked to rank how important science is for attaining truth. They were also mandated to explain how much they agreed with a range of statements, including “HIV causes AIDS” and “Human CO2 emissions cause climate change”.
The subjects were also given a chance to make up their own federal budget. After being presented with a pie chart made up of 2015’s data, they were then asked to rearrange it however they liked – the idea being that the greater the level of funding given to science, the more they explicitly supported it.
At the same time, the research team perused through pre-existing opinion surveys in order to establish whether or not correlations between belief systems and various skepticisms could be found.
Religious orthodoxy insists that a person’s faith is the primary source of truth, not science, so it’s not surprising that plenty of studies, including this one, have found that religious conservatism is linked to an unwillingness to accept science.
Previous studies have also found that, regardless of scientific literacy levels, conservativism is linked to a disbelief in anthropogenic climate change thanks to an unwavering adherence to partisan standpoints.
This team suspects that “conservatives worry about the economic and political ramifications of climate science”, which suggests that economic arguments touting the benefits of climate advocacy may be the best way to win skeptics around.
A lack of support and understanding of science clearly makes sense for best predicting GM skepticism, but the anti-vaxxer correlation to disgust-based moral purity concerns are somewhat bemusing.
Often appearing alongside strong religious inclinations, moral purity can loosely be defined as the unwavering belief that you’re doing the “right thing”. Considering that rejecting vaccines puts lives in danger, this strikes us as curious.