According to new research published in Advances in Science. The findings are in line with the Dunning-Kruger effect, a well-documented phenomenon in which people who lack skills or knowledge tend to overestimate their abilities.
“I’m interested in public understanding of science because it’s so important to social and environmental well-being,” said study author Nick Light, an assistant professor of marketing at Portland State University. “When people act in ways that go against good science, people get sick, lose their homes, lose money, get displaced, or even die (as is the case with COVID, natural disasters, etc. .). The better we can understand why people hold attitudes that go against the scientific consensus, the better scientists or policy makers can design interventions to help people.”
In two initial studies, involving 3,249 US adults recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk and Prolific Academic, participants were randomly assigned to indicate their level of support or opposition to one of seven scientific issues: climate change, modified food genetically, nuclear energy, vaccination. , evolution, the Big Bang or homeopathic medicine. Participants were asked to rate their understanding of the topic on a 7-point scale, ranging from “Vague understanding” to “Complete understanding”.
To assess their scientific knowledge, participants answered 34 randomly ordered true-false questions. The questions included a wide range of science topics, such as “True or False? The center of the earth is very hot”, “True or False? All insects have eight legs” and “True or False? Venus is the hottest planet close to the sun”.
Light and his research team found that people who were most opposed to the scientific consensus on the given topic were more likely to claim that they have a “complete understanding” of it. But those most opposed to the scientific consensus tended to score worse on the test of objective knowledge of science.
“Scientists are constantly debating the best ways to explain the world around us,” Light told PsyPost. “Sometimes, however, the evidence is so strong or consistent that most of them agree on something. This is what we call scientific consensus. In this paper we find that people who have attitudes most strongly against of the scientific consensus believe they know more about scientific problems, but actually know less.”
The researchers also found some evidence that political polarization could weaken these relationships. For more politically polarized issues, the relationship between opposition to scientific consensus and objective knowledge was not as negative.
“The main caveat is that while this pattern of effects appears to be fairly general, we don’t find it for all problems,” Light said. “A notable example is climate change. Our next steps include looking deeper into psychology to try to figure out why we don’t find these effects for some problems.”
In a third study, involving 1,173 American adults, participants were given the opportunity to bet on their ability to score above average on a test of objective science knowledge. Consistent with previous studies, Light and colleagues found that participants with greater opposition to the scientific consensus tended to earn less due to overconfidence in the knowledge.
In a fourth study, which included 501 participants, researchers examined whether overconfidence in knowledge was related to willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The study was conducted in July 2020, before a vaccine was publicly available. Participants were asked their willingness to receive a vaccine in the future and then rated their understanding of how a vaccine against COVID-19 would work.
Participants then completed a 23-question science knowledge test, which included six items about COVID-19, such as “True or false? COVID-19 is a type of bacteria” and “True or false? COVID -19 can be transmitted through houseflies.”
Light and colleagues found that participants who were more opposed to receiving a vaccine tended to report having a better understanding of how a vaccine against COVID-19 would work, but their general knowledge of the science and COVID-19 tended to be worse.
A fifth study of 695 participants, conducted in September 2020, found a similar pattern of results regarding COVID-19 mitigation policies. The results held even after controlling for political identity.
The researchers said the findings have some practical implications for science communicators and policy makers.
“Since the most extreme opponents of the scientific consensus tend to be the most confident in their knowledge, evidence-based educational interventions are less likely to be effective for this audience,” Light and colleagues wrote. “For example, The Ad Council conducted one of the largest public education campaigns in history in an effort to convince people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. If people with strong anti-vaccine beliefs already think who know all there is to know about vaccination and COVID-19, the campaign is unlikely to persuade them.”
The study, “Knowledge Overconfidence Is Associated with Counter-Consensus Views on Controversial Scientific Issues,” was authored by Nicholas Light, Philip M. Fernbach, Nathaniel Rabb, Mugur V. Geana, and Steven A. Sloman.