Science denial is…rational?

I, until very recently, believed that there were two types of people in this world – those who accept the theory of evolution and those who do not understand the theory of evolution. In my mind, it was impossible to be presented with the overwhelming evidence for and beautiful simplicity of The Theory and not be convinced. Yet, a small, informal survey of sophomore-ish biology majors here at LSU revealed only 35% responded with “Evolution” to the question: What are your feelings/beliefs about how we, as humans, came to exist on Earth? To be fair, the highest category was “Some mix of evolution, creationism and intelligent design”, which really means only 23% of respondents did not include evolution. These numbers are much better than our national average: Miller et al. (2006) conducted a multinational survey that showed nearly 40% of Americans deem evolution “false”. This makes us second from the bottom (out of 34 countries!) in acceptance of evolution – right below Cyprus and above Turkey.

Small informal survey of undergraduate science majors.

As it turns out, I have overlooked a third type of person: a person who can be exposed to a well-supported argument for an uncontroversial scientific consensus and reject it. These people are a major source of science denial. Rosenau (2012) published an amazing and concise review this week in Trends in Microbiology that discusses science denialism and how it’s more about identity and social groups than scientific facts.

Science denial extends beyond my pet interest, evolution. Climate change and childhood vaccinations are, sadly, also on the list of scientific findings that people reject. And when it comes to vaccinations, this denial can be fatal. The government, and presumably any doctor, will tell you vaccinations are safe and necessary – yet some people continue to believe the opposite. How can this be?

Science denial is wrong and harmful, but not antiscience nor irrational. It is driven by genuine fears and deep personal values. (Rosenau 2012)

Rosenau makes the case that when we (scientists/science supporters) talk to deniers/agnostics, conversations that begin in the scientific realm very quickly turn to religion, personal freedom, morality and even capitalism. The denial stems from how people identify themselves and how they see the world; it can be rooted in fear, anger and distrust of things outside their social group (religious and political affiliations are two major such groups). Because denying climate change is now linked to political conservatism and denying evolution is linked to certain religions, we can’t just treat these deniers as ignorant. The denial is not rooted in scientific facts.

This may sound like a truism – that rejection of scientific fact is not rooted in scientific fact. But it’s honestly not an idea that fit into my own reality: Sound science should be enough to convince anyone! This is not the case – because information must fit in our worldview. Another recent paper, Lewandowsky et al. (2012), discusses how misinformation can be accepted and perpetuated. Information we receive is crosschecked in our brains as being either compatible and acceptable or incompatible and not acceptable. Once information has been accepted, it is hard to dislodge. Additionally, the larger the “compatible knowledge base” is, the more likely a piece of misinformation is to be accepted because it feels right and is more “fluent”. Influent ideas, or the ones that “don’t feel right” receive more internal scrutiny and are more likely to be rejected. Lewandowsky cite other studies showing that factors irrelevant to correctness can lead to misinformation being fluent – for instance, rhyming statements or a familiar accent make information “feel right” and thus be accepted.

So if someone grows up in a church that preaches “Evolution is false and to believe in it is immoral”, any scientific evidence to the contrary is nearly impossible to accept. In fact, the rational thing to do is reject the facts in favor of the deeply held beliefs and personal identification that the person has lived with…eh…forever. Glymour and Tanona (2012) further reinforce the idea that when facts contradict core values, the rational response is to reject the facts. It is not irrational to choose your values over facts and people who do so will not be swayed by more data. Thus, “effective science communication really is a matter of values, not of facts.”

What to do? How do we combat science denial when more data and discussion of facts only leads to dismissal and non-acceptance?

Recognizing and defusing the social pressures underlying science denial are key in convincing people that it is even worth considering scientific ideas that seem contrary to those of their social identity. (Rosenau 2012)

Rosenau advises that we should start within our own social groups – i.e., if YOU can belong to a social group AND accept scientific findings contrary to the norms of that group, perhaps other members of that group will feel their identity is less threatened. Family is a pretty low risk social group for me to start with –they’re more or less genetically obligated to listen. Or perhaps at the next tailgate, after a rousing “Geaux Tigers!” we can all discuss how great football is and how critical tigers are to LSU fan identity. Then perhaps how sad it would be to see them go and what we might do about it.

(I’d love to hear others thoughts on how we can increase science acceptance – please don’t be shy about leaving comments!)

Glymour B, Tanona S (2012). Reason, Values and Evidence: Rational Dissent from Scientific Authority. Between Scientists and Citizens: Proceedings from a Conference at Iowa State University, June 1 – 2, 2012.

Lewandowsky S, Ecker UKH, Seifert CM, Schwarz N, Cook J (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13: 106-131.

Rosenau J (2012). Science denial: a guide for scientists. Trends in Microbiology 20: 567-569.

9 comments on “Science denial is…rational?

  1. Cathy Newman says:

    All of this makes sense — at least, from my perspective, having lived through it all and experienced the transition from science denial to…well…science. My only doubt is with Rosenau’s suggestion that we should all be accommodationists and kindly assure the little denialists that yes it really is ok and possible to be a Christian AND believe in evolution. We (the scientific community and science educators) have been doing this very thing for decades, and there is no evidence that it is effective.

    The most outspoken and fervent of denialists that I know personally are also some of the most well-read people I know. I wish that my previous life had left me with some novel insight about how to effectively reach folks immersed in similar cultures as I, but I usually find myself just as much at a loss as those who grew up in normal families.

    • Hird says:

      I feel I’ve been to dichotomous in my thinking and this “third person” needs some time to percolate through my brain. Perhaps I need a little more accommodation in my life. There must be a way, right? Potential roadmap: Appeal to facts. If you can’t appeal to facts, appeal to reason. If you can’t appeal to reason, appeal to feeling. If you can’t appeal to feelings, well then we try cat videos.

  2. If you’re interested in this subject, I’d recommend Kathryn Schulz’s “Being Wrong: …” (

    It’s a much more general, but very fun exploration of human error, and our own perceptions of it. It touches on a lot of the human factors that influence decision making, etc.

  3. yquemener says:

    “I’d love to hear others thoughts on how we can increase science acceptance”

    Explain how science can make one rich, sexy and cool.

    Seriously. If you show that scientific knowledge makes you able to lose 20 pounds easily or to recognize elaborate scams easily, you can convince people who are otherwise uninterested in science as a tool to uncover truth.

    I have this stupid/serious idea that scientists should begin to dress up (as mad scientists or steampunk guys) when doing conferences. It is useless, but face it : it is useless for musicians too.

  4. Cathy Newman says:

    And if you’re really interested, I’d also recommend Jason Rosenhouse’s newish book “Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line.” His experiences among real people (rather than just the internets) led him to realizations similar to the ones you discuss here, and then some. I have it, if you ever want to borrow.

  5. Brigid Hains says:

    Check out today’s essay on climate apathy and denialism in Aeon mag for some psychologically minded thoughts on this challenge

  6. Torah Gen says:

    I think that the best way to increase science acceptance is to have people within religious groups that feel at odds with evolution explain how their religious beliefs and evolution are not mutually exclusive. In this post, you admitted to expecting two categories of people: creationists and evolutionists. However, it is not a contradiction at all to believe that one god created everything and that evolution is true. Thus the two terms should not be treated as mutually exclusive. I think once people start to realize the false dichotomy, evolution can truly be embraced.

  7. […] Since then, we’ve written about everything from mammoth extinction events to diet fads, from the rationality of science denialism to the selective effects of agriculture—and we’ve had a lot of fun doing […]

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