We live in an interesting time. The number of people who today openly question reality are not the tin-foil hat-wearing kind. Increasingly they are our friends, and those who hold positions of power. Indeed, the public understanding of what constitutes valid evidence, and a worthy expert opinion, seems to be at an all time low.
But how did this happen? Why is it that with so much information available, we seem to be so bad at figuring out the truth? Well, a new study suggests that this wealth of information might be the problem.
A new study out of Germany has found that people are much more confident in the claims of a popular science article then they are in the claims of an academic article written for experts, even when the topics are similar. And that this can have negative side effects for how they view expert opinions, even long after the fact.
In the study, subjects from a wide variety of educational backgrounds were asked to read either a popular science article or an article intended for experts. They were then asked about how much they agreed with the claims of the article and how credible the articles seemed. The subjects tended to view the popular articles with more agreement than they did with the expert articles, despite not finding the popular articles to be any more credible.
It was also found that the subjects were more confident in their own judgments after reading a popular article, and that this was tied to a lessened desire to seek out more information from expert sources. This tendency has a name, the "easiness effect”, and has been studied for years by psychologists.
But why is this?
The researchers suggest that the issue arises from the manner in which popular science is presented; as opposed to how scientists themselves present data to each other and to the public. While popular media sites tend to condense data into well edited, understandable, and quite certain sounding chunks; academic papers make constant mention of likelihoods, margin of errors, and the probable way things are. With the researchers noting the comprehensibility of an article being a major factor for many readers and how much they agreed with it, saying:
“Our results also confirm that popularized articles were perceived as being more comprehensible than scientific articles, supporting the notion that the observed genre differences in laypeople’s agreement with the claim and their judgment confidence were indeed brought about by differences in processing ease”.
The study goes on to suggest that consuming popular science leads people to underestimate the importance of having experts in the pursuit of knowledge. This emboldens people to reject the ideas of experts who they see as superfluous to their understanding of an idea (which they have already grasped).
Another interesting interpretation of this is the idea that people demand a certainty from science that experts know they cannot have. As such, they turn to popular works which remove details of margins of error and probabilities rather than experts who temper their knowledge for the sake of accuracy. The studies on this subject have, however, tended to stay near subjects of immediate concern and use to the common reader, notably health. It could still be asked if the possible negative effects of reading too much popular science would apply in all fields.
Does having greater access to expert findings — presented by journalists and commentators — make us less likely to believe scientific results? This study appears to suggest so. Is pop science to blame for this? Is our ability to easily articulate the findings of science doing a disservice to it? The research is still new enough that a solid answer doesn’t exist yet. But it does mean that popular science articles, like this one, might have to start calculating for the effect they may have on their readers.