Believe it or not, science deniers aren't stupid

Are people with blatantly un-scientific views stupid? The authors of Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us have a different view. 

The tone of a lot of modern political and social commentary is one of mockery: condemning “stupid” people for their un-scientific views. Many people do deny scientific consensus on very consequential topics, such as climate change and vaccinations. In fact, research shows that constructing un-scientific ideas is natural to human psychology. According to Sara E. Gorman, PhD and Jack M. Gorman, MD, the authors of Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, we should not treat people with un-scientific views with disdain. Rather, they argue, we should recognize how commonplace and natural such views are and examine how and why they emerge in the first place.


In an article for Time, Gorman and Gorman emphasize that all humans are prone to science-denial and that many intelligent people endorse a wide variety of such views. Mere “stupidity” and lack of education, then, are not the causes of such ideas. Rather, they argue, the causes are psychological.

Indeed, human psychology is prone to handling lack of knowledge and risk-assessment very un-scientifically. Sara and Jack Gorman describe how inclined we are to confabulating explanations for complex phenomena:

Research has proven that humans are distinctly uncomfortable with events or phenomena without clear causes, and when we don’t know something, we tend to fill in the gaps ourselves. Take the example of the parent whose child has autism, a devastating condition whose cause is unknown. Desperately trying to find out what caused your child’s autism, even if there is nothing you can do about it, is a completely natural human phenomenon. Since we don’t know why it occurs, it becomes easy to misplace blame.

The Gormans demonstrate that people who develop false beliefs are neither stupid nor weird. Instead, they are often responding to difficult information in a very human way.

They go on to describe how people also exhibit a natural tendency toward poor risk assessment. They write:

[H]umans do not assess risk in a measured or rational manner. Instead, assessments of risk depend a great deal on what is sometimes called “imaginability,” which refers to the ability to conjure an image of something in one’s mind. Because we are fundamentally empathetic creatures, we respond more to stories than to statistics. That’s precisely what makes it more natural for anti-vaxxers to “imagine” the risk of their children dying from a vaccine than it is for them to comprehend statistics that vaccines are safe.

Again, Gorman and Gorman demonstrate how people naturally develop un-scientific points of view through fundamental features of our psychology. Humans’ lack of psychological intuition for scientific and probabilistic thinking is perhaps consistent with how relatively recently in our species’s history those disciplines emerged and developed.

Given humans’ psychological propensities toward un-scientific reasoning, Gorman and Gorman urge educators and public figures to do away with condemning people with certain views because, if for no other reason, it simply does not work as a means of changing minds. Indeed, many educational campaigns aimed at addressing misinformation often backfire and reinforce the very beliefs they were trying to correct.

To ameliorate present-day shortcomings in scientific education, the Gormans recommend first asking how certain false beliefs come about – and, ultimately, for empathy.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

Mind & Brain
  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Keep reading Show less

Apparently even NASA is wrong about which planet is closest to Earth

Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.

Strange Maps
  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!
Keep reading Show less

Mini-brains attach to spinal cord and twitch muscles

A new method of growing mini-brains produces some startling results.

(Lancaster, et al)
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new and inexpensive way to keep organoids growing for a year.
  • Axons from the study's organoids attached themselves to embryonic mouse spinal cord cells.
  • The mini-brains took control of muscles connected to the spinal cords.
Keep reading Show less