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What Can Be Done About Anti-Science Believers? New Paper Explains How to Increase Public Acceptance of Science.

July 14, 2022

Toronto – From climate change deniers to anti-vaccine activities, a growing number of people are developing anti-science attitudes. A new article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) examines the psychology of why people are anti-science and provides evidence-based strategies for increasing public acceptance of science.

The article, co-authored by Spike W.S. Lee, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, outlines four principles that explain why people have anti-science beliefs. First, the scientists communicating their message can be perceived as being inexpert, untrustworthy, or biased which threatens their credibility. Second, the audience for the message identifies with groups that are anti-science such as those who have been underrepresented or who have been historically exploited in scientific experiences. And, in general, people may reject scientific information incompatible with their identities such as video gamers who are more likely to reject evidence on the harms of playing the games. Third, the scientific message goes against people’s beliefs and preferences, which may be based on outdated scientific evidence or misinformation. Finally, the message is delivered in a way that conflicts with how people tend to approach information. Often scientific information is delivered in terms that signal uncertainty, and some people are particularly aversive to uncertainty.

Politics is also a powerful force for enhancing anti-science attitudes because it feeds into each of the four reasons for anti science attitudes.

“There are potential solutions to mitigate anti-science attitudes by targeting one of the four reasons for anti science attitudes,” explains Prof. Lee. “Some of these solutions can be easily applied such as journals including non-technical “lay summaries” of articles along with an abstract so that interested lay people can read the information in terminology they understand. Scientific communication can also use different delivery approaches for different audiences as is already being done in forms of consumer marketing.”

Other approaches involve reframing the scientific message in accord with a person’s moral concerns. Studies have shown this has been effective in minimizing morally based opposition to vaccines.

The study is online from PNAS and was co-authored by Prof. Aviva Philippe-Muller of Simon Fraser University and Prof. Richard Petty of Ohio State University.

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Ken McGuffin 
Manager, Media Relations 
Rotman School of Management 
University of Toronto