Science Denial Isn’t Only A Conservative Problem


Do you believe in climate change, and that humans have contributed to it? If you lean left, chances are the answer is yes. Scientists have often counted on liberals and Democrats to support their political causes, including climate legislation, stem-cell research, and the teaching of evolution in schools.

Yet it may surprise many liberals to recognize that science denial isn’t purely a symptom of the political right.

For instance, much of the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is between scientists and liberals. Approximately the same amount of scientists believe that climate change is mostly due to human activity (87%)* as believe that genetically modified foods are safe to eat (88%), yet scientists face an uphill battle in convincing their usual political allies about the science of GMOs.

Why such a shift from the traditional supporters of scientifically informed policy? Part of the reason, as I wrote in my last post, is motivated reasoning. The same ideological narratives – such as “environmental protection” and “keeping corporations in check” – may lead Democrats to believe the science on climate change but reject the science on GMOs. We prefer cohesive and identity-affirming stories more than complicated and nuanced truths, so we sometimes dismiss legitimate data and arguments when they don’t support our previous beliefs.

A related factor that fuels science denial is an increasing distrust in experts and public figures. Trust in many American institutions is at or near all-time lows. While this distrust can be justified, all too often it contributes to us believing we know more than we actually do. In attempting to protect ourselves from misinformation, our distrust can lead us to ignore important information and become entrenched in incorrect beliefs.

Can We Correct Misperceptions?

One of the reasons people rally against GMOs is that they believe modifying an organism’s DNA is unprecedented and unethical. While the naturalistic fallacy certainly plays into people’s confusion on this issue, the truth is that we have been genetically engineering our crops for thousands of years. For example, foods like corn wouldn’t exist had our ancestors not engaged in genetic engineering, however unconsciously. While modern methods are undoubtedly more advanced and can be seen as controversial, the core process is something which has remained unchanged for millennia.

Although we might hope that spreading the facts will increase consensus, the reality is that addressing partisans’ false beliefs often backfires. Correcting factual misperceptions on political issues can fail to convince those who were misinformed and sometimes influences people to harden in their incorrect beliefs. Thus, scientists may not be able to persuade Democrats or Republicans out of their misconceptions.

So what can we do to change people’s minds? It seems that correcting others may be much less effective than getting people to confront their own lack of understanding.

Illusion of Explanatory Depth

To test this idea, Fernbach et al. (2013) asked participants to indicate their levels of understanding and support for these six policy propositions:

(a) Imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program

(b) Raising the retirement age for Social Security

(c) Transitioning to a single-payer health care system

(d) Establishing a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions

(e) Instituting a national flat tax

(f) Implementing merit-based pay for teachers

Then, some participants were randomly assigned to give precise step-by-step explanations of how two of these policies would be implemented and affect change. After writing their explanations, participants were asked to rerate their understanding and preference of the two policies and indicate how certain they felt about their positions.

The results showed that, after attempting to explain policies, participants reported decreased confidence in their understanding and more moderate positions on the issues they evaluated. Compared to participants who explained why they supported a policy, those who explained how a policy worked were less extreme and certain in their final positions.

Confronting their own ignorance, and breaking what the authors called the illusion of explanatory depth, humbled the participants and made them more open to other perspectives. The authors suggest that trying to explain how policies work made people feel uncertain about how much they understood the topic, so those participants expressed less certainty and extremity in their views. Alternatively, those who were asked to explain their reasons for support were not led to question their understanding of the topics, so their certainty didn’t shift because they still believed they knew enough to have a confident opinion.

Balancing Our Judgements with Intellectual Humility

Studies like Fernbach et al. (2013) illustrate the need for us to cultivate intellectual humility to recalibrate our overconfident policy evaluations. Intellectual humility has been defined as “having insight about the limits of one’s knowledge, marked by openness to new ideas; and…the ability to present one’s ideas in a non-offensive manner and receive contrary ides without taking offense,” (Davis et al., 2014). Like the participants who realized that they couldn’t adequately explain the policies they were writing about, we need to accept that we may not always possess the information necessary to be definitively confident in our opinions.

Recognizing our limitations requires us to trust others if we want to obtain knowledge, and preliminary data from Davis et al. (2014) suggests that intellectual humility is indeed related to trust. Psychological scientists are just beginning to study how this trait impacts one’s worldview and decision-making, but it seems clear that when we trust others, especially those with greater knowledge than ourselves, we have a better opportunity to reach valid conclusions about the state of the world.

That being said, cultivating intellectual humility doesn’t require us to abandon our skepticism altogether. Experienced clinicians, lawyers, and political analysts are all susceptible to errors and biases, and experts in all professions deserve our scrutiny. These individuals surely possess important knowledge that most of us do not, but they can be biased and overconfident in their assessments like the rest of us. Maintaining skepticism allows us to hold others to the same standards of intellectual humility that we should strive for ourselves.

So while GMO skeptics should accept the current evidence that GMOs are safe, there’s no reason why they can’t also demand increased oversight and data collection until more long-term data are collected. This moderate stance, which acknowledges the concerns of both GMO skeptics and supporters, seems to be the best way forward on this issue.

Experts, including scientists, deserve our skepticism, but we are not likely to remedy any of our complex policy problems unless we also appreciate their perspective and insights. And, if partisans develop more intellectual humility, we will hopefully see greater acceptance of facts on both sides of the aisle.

*It is important to note that 97% of climate scientists, compared to 88% of scientists at large, agree that climate change is mostly due to human activity. This difference should remind us that experts also forget about the limits of their expertise.

Jared Celniker
About Jared Celniker:

Jared is a PhD student in social psychology and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of California, Irvine. He studies political and moral decision-making and believes that psychological insights can help improve political discourse and policymaking.