There are several reasons why a person may hold views that differ from the scientific consensus. They may lack knowledge of the subject, the “deficit model”, in which case higher education is required. Although a popular approach, it has shown little efficacy. This failure led to the notion that “people’s beliefs are shaped more by their cultural values or affiliations,” selectively selecting information to fit their worldview. The great success in the management of hypertension in the black community through barbershops supports this view. The Dunning-Kruger effect, often wrong, never questioned, adds a new wrinkle to the possibilities—that the most vehemently against consensus are also the least informed but most confident in their views.
Researchers writing in Science Advances looked at seven questions on which we currently have a published scientific consensus:
- The safety of GMO foods
- The validity of anthropogenic climate change
- The benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks
- The validity of evolution in explaining human origins
- The validity of the Big Bang theory in explaining the origin of the universe
- The lack of efficacy of homeopathic medicines
- The importance of nuclear energy as a source of energy
They surveyed 3,200 online participants, asking 34 true-false questions to calibrate an individual’s “objective” knowledge. They also asked a series of questions to quantify the individual’s confidence in that information, their “subjective” knowledge, the “never doubt” part of the family motto.
For these seven topics, the researcher found the Dunning-Kruger effect among those who most vehemently oppose the scientific consensus. Their objective knowledge of the subject was inversely proportional to how strongly they held these beliefs. Here’s the breakdown by topic.
While it is true that “often wrong, never in doubt” held true in all scenarios, there were a few exceptions, notably the Big Bang and evolution, as explanations of our origins seemed to show a little less confidence in their understanding.
Climate change also differs from other consensus issues. The researchers believe that political polarization influenced this topic and moderated the Dunning-Kruger effect. The researchers conducted additional studies targeting COVID vaccination and mitigation behaviors. Lower willingness to vaccinate or follow mitigating behaviors was again associated with insufficient objective knowledge and greater subjective confidence in these beliefs. Interestingly, about 28% of participants rated their knowledge of mitigation strategies as more significant than that of scientists. Unlike other studies, researchers do not argue that political affiliation is the critical driver of COVID behavior.
There are a few key points to keep in mind. Some of these consensus issues, notably nuclear energy and, to a lesser extent, childhood vaccinations, are issues of trade-off, benefits versus harms. Belief in misinformation may not play such an important role. Among scientists, the consensus around nuclear energy is about 65%; consensus on the safety of GMO foods is 98%. Politically, more education will not convince those who oppose the scientific consensus. What can actually change their minds is the behavior of others. The next article will find out who these others are and their impact.
Source: Knowledge overconfidence is associated with anti-consensus views on controversial scientific issues Advances in Science DOI: 0.1126/sciadv.abo0038