Believe it or not, science deniers aren’t stupid
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.