Scientific Denial Caused By Unpalatable Solutions


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

184 Scientific Denial Caused By Unpalatable Solutions
grahamc99 via wikicommons. Refusing to hear or see evidence depends on perceptions of the solutions

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has demonstrated what many have suspected: Refusal to accept well-established science is driven by dislike of solutions to the problems identified.

“Logically, the proposed solution to a problem, such as an increase in government regulation or an extension of the free market, should not influence one’s belief in the problem. However, we find it does,” said co-author Troy Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke' University “The cure can be more immediately threatening than the problem.” 


Campbell set out to test if what he calls “solution aversion” exists.  When presented with a solution involving taxation or government regulation just 22% of those who identified as Republicans said the world really would warm as much as climate scientists anticipate. But when the answer was put in the form of new technologies promoted through the free market, 55% of the Republicans acknowledged the scale of the problem. Similar results were found for the health effects of environmental pollution.

While two thirds of the Republicans did not shift their views in response to the solutions, almost all would have had at least some familiarity with the debate and may have had fairly fixed views of which solutions are likely to be implemented. 

Democrats were unaffected in the study above. However, they should not get too smug. When the problem was shifted to violent home robberies, left-leaning individuals were less likely to accept the frequency of the problem if given a solution they didn't like, such as relaxing gun laws. However, unlike with climate change, the variation ran both ways. Opponents of gun control also thought the problem was more severe when they liked the solution.

"Recognizing this effect is helpful because it allows researchers to predict not just what problems people will deny, but who will likely deny each problem,” said co-author Dr. Aaron Kay, an associate professor at Fuqua. “The more threatening a solution is to a person, the more likely that person is to deny the problem.” 


Kay is hopeful that presenting solutions in an acceptable manner to a particular audience will improve acceptance of contentious scientific evidence. How practical this is away from a lab environment remains to be seen.

The research goes-hand-in-hand with past studies indicating resistance to scientific evidence is based on ideology, rather than lack of knowledge.


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