View Article PDF

In 2007 a Minneapolis special education survey raised concerns within the Somali community about a predisposition for autism. This was a signal for anti-vaccination activists to swoop and cultivate the perennial scapegoat, MMR vaccine.1 Subsequent analysis did not show a greater Somali susceptibility to autism but by that time MMR had been demonised and vaccination rates fell from 92% in 2004 to 42% by 2014.2 Autism rates did not change over this period but children became vulnerable to measles. The first outbreak was in 2011 and the second, in 2017, was one of the largest US outbreaks of measles in the last two decades. Despite this ‘lesson’, there is burgeoning vaccine hesitancy in the US and outbreaks have, improbably, become rallying points for activists to allege vaccine injury and institutional cover-up.3,4 The pattern is repeated worldwide. The incitement of vaccine distrust is a causal factor in the European and Asian measles epidemics as well as rubella outbreaks in Japan and diphtheria in Spain.5–7 Measles was declared eradicated from New Zealand in 2017 but has returned in increasing numbers of unvaccinated children. While vaccine hesitancy is multifactorial, home-grown scaremongering and faux immunisation advice are reckless contributors to this problem.8,9

Vaccine hesitancy involves broad issues of accessibility, complacency and trust.10 This article focuses on one element of the latter, the rejection of stable scientific evidence and advice. Why do activists and well-informed parents dismiss the imperative of childhood vaccines when the evidence has never been better understood, better documented and better communicated?

The same is true of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The evidence that humans are warming the planet is overwhelming and is the long-term consensus of virtually the entire expert scientific community researching in that area.11,12 Yet highly educated, science-literate people will not accept AGW and are often scornful of the science and scientists behind it.

Certain areas of science have become a battleground of fact between scientific expertise and lay opinion. It is here that we find ‘science denial’: the dismissal, outside peer review and relevant expertise, of a scientific consensus where the science is characteristically perceived as a threat.13 Arguments are therefore often accompanied by attacks on the integrity of the scientists themselves.14 How widespread is this problem? US national science reports from 2018 show the majority of Americans view scientific research as beneficial, they trust scientists to tell the truth and they trust scientists to report findings accurately.15,16 These findings have been stable over four decades and are mirrored in New Zealand and UK surveys.17,18 The data don’t support a general ‘war on science’ but they do identify a minority who do not trust scientists and who reject their findings. This group can be very vocal and influence policy and community health.

The knowledge deficit model

Do those who reject the scientific consensus simply have a poor understanding of the relevant science? This is called the knowledge deficit model and its importance is that, if science denial stems from a lack of knowledge, better education and communication should improve trust in science. This is borne out in several international surveys that show a weak but consistent relationship between general science knowledge or education attainment and more positive attitudes to science.15,16,18–20 Thus education may improve trust in science.

The problem is that when surveys look at attitudes in specific areas of science the relationship breaks down. American surveys show those with more science knowledge have greater trust in the science of GM food safety, but an international meta-analysis found the relationship was weaker unless that knowledge related to biology or genetics.19,21,22 Science knowledge is only a medium factor in predicting attitude to AGW or evolution and a weak factor in predicting attitudes to vaccine safety.19,22 The role education plays in vaccine acceptance varies between regions. In The Netherlands, Greece, Nigeria and Pakistan, education increases vaccine acceptance, while in China, Bangladesh, Israel, and the US, higher education can be a potential barrier to acceptance.10 Negative correlations are reported in other fields. For certain religious and conservative demographics, attitudes to embryo research, genetic testing, Big Bang theory, evolution and AGW deteriorate as knowledge and education increase.19,20,23

Thus, in these areas of science, and they are common areas for science denial, educational attainment and science knowledge are not necessarily predictive of greater trust in the scientific consensus.

Science denial is a misleading term. People don’t deny Boyle’s Law, they reject science in selected areas such as evolution, AGW, vaccine safety and GM food safety. This has been called the motivated rejection of science and most instances are explained by four overlapping components: cultural cognition, conspiracy ideation, free-market ideology and political populism.24

Cultural cognition

When people lack the time or the expertise to form a real understanding of a science proposal, the strongest influence on their viewpoint tends to be their cultural worldview. These are deeply engrained values and beliefs that give us our sense of self, group identity and how we want society to be. Science proposals are viewed through that lens and it is a self-reaffirming lens because, if the science threatens the worldview, it will tend to be the science that is dismissed rather than the worldview adjusted.25,26 This results in certain areas of science being culturally, politically and religiously polarised.25

Kahan compared subjects’ science knowledge with the probability of getting the answer right to some basic science questions.27 With general science questions there was a strong relationship: the greater the science knowledge, the more likely a correct answer. But when subjects were asked whether AGW was real, the relationship barely reached statistical significance. Science knowledge was no longer predictive of the correct answer. When those subjects were grouped according to political outlook the influence of worldview became clear: those on the Left were agreeing and those on the Right were disagreeing. In the same year Americans were asked if Earth warming is due to human activity. Seventy-one percent of Democrats said yes in contrast to only 27% of Republicans.22

What was particularly revealing in the Kahan study was that, as science knowledge increased, so did the polarisation; the Left became more supportive and the Right became more resistant to AGW. Drummond and Fischoff examined the effects of political and religious identity on the acceptance of core science findings including AGW, evolution and Big Bang theory.20 In each of these areas extreme Conservatives and religious fundamentalists adopted positions counter to established scientific evidence and the greater their science education, the greater was their resistance to that science.

This is the opposite of what we would expect from the knowledge deficit model. The accepted explanation is that the greater your education and science literacy, the more adept you become in interpreting information in ways to support your world view.20,28 Consequently, if a science finding feels threatening, the greater your education, the greater your resistance can become. This is bad news for the role that facts and education might have in preventing or correcting science denial.

In another example, individuals with culturally polarised views on the risks of mandatory human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination were provided with balanced arguments.25 Everyone could now see each other’s point of view. It might be expected that this would move groups towards middle ground but the opposite occurred. The participants became more polarised because they had quickly dismissed conflicting material and been reinforced by new information that bolstered their established position.

In summary, certain areas of science are culturally polarised and minds made up in these areas are not usually swayed by more facts and knowledge. Indeed, giving more facts can harden resistance by amplifying the competing positions.23,26 When parents were provided corrective information on MMR/autism links or images of children sick with measles, parents with the least favourable views on vaccination hardened their intentions not to vaccinate.29 There is no single population that has an anti-science leaning, the demographics depend on which science position is being denied.15 The rejection of stem cell research, evolution, Big Bang theory and AGW are associated strongly with religious and conservative-right ideologies.15,20 Public attitudes to GM food vary between regions as do the demographics of those who distrust messages regarding its safety. In the US, GM food safety is not consistently politically polarised while in Europe distrust is more common among the political left.22 Active distrust in vaccines has a bias towards the young in US surveys but does not polarise to left or right politics.22 The exception is opposition to HPV vaccination which has a conservative bias.25 The politicisation of science is not a new phenomenon, but this is a time when scientific expertise is being openly derided across mass media in favour of politically flavoured opinion. Gauchat looked at 40 years of American data and found that while the public trust in science was stable over that time, political polarisation has increased.30 This was because of a shift in conservative stance. In the 1970s it was the conservatives who had the greatest trust in science but now they are the group in which there is least trust. This is attributed to conservative aversion to increasing amounts of science with regulatory implications, particularly those that increase institutional interference and constrain free-choice.25,30

Conspiracy thinking

Science denial, especially vaccine distrust and AGW rejection, is strongly associated with another style of thinking, conspiracy ideation.24,31–34 The salient features of a conspiracy are that it is a covert plot by a powerful authority in order to accomplish a sinister goal.33,35

When someone rejects an established scientific consensus they frequently explain the consensus in terms of a conspiracy among scientists. Vaccination programmes are regularly attacked by activists as schemes for profit and mass control in which institutions have suppressed evidence of harm.34 The origins and treatment of HIV/AIDs has a long history of denial and conspiracy, and even in 2013 12% of Americans believed it credible that the CIA deliberately infected African Americans with HIV.36 The same survey found 37% believed drug companies pressure the FDA to suppress natural cures for cancer and 20% believed corporations were preventing health officials from revealing links between cell phones and cancer.36 Climate science imperatives are regularly explained as conspiracies. A 2016 poll found that 40% believed it possible that global warming was a myth concocted by scientists.37

Explaining a science position as a conspiracy is not usually an isolated consideration. Conspiracy ideation is an ideological view of how the world works that has a distrust of authority at its core.35 It is a psychological disposition that is amplified by anxiety, lack of social control or a sense of social ostracism.32,33,35 In this context the conspiracies instil a sense of valour, morality and superior insight.31,32 These are powerful, enabling motivations and drive a style of reasoning that tends to deride conventional wisdom and protect the conspiracy at all costs. This is sustained by a heightened tendency for a number of cognitive biases so that strong empirical and statistical evidence is ultimately dismissed in favour of anecdote and anomaly with complete resistance to falsification.31,32

Conspiracy theories perpetuated in mass media may have an insidious effect on our behaviour. The mere exposure to conspiracy theories can induce a sense of disillusionment and disengage people from behavioural changes such as reducing their carbon footprint or vaccinating their children.35,38,39 Why would you vaccinate your children if it were a government plot?

Pragmatic: profit and populism

Science findings are also dismissed for pragmatic reasons. The last hundred years have shown numerous corporations dismissing science that threatened profits. Most notable has been the tobacco industry, which has a long history of attacking research linking smoking to cancer and other health problems. Corporate strategies to discredit research and researchers are well-described elsewhere but there is one tactic worth highlighting because it is an insidious manipulation of public understanding, and that is corporate campaigns specifically designed to make people feel uncertain.40,41

Robert Proctor was the first historian to testify against the tobacco industry. A focal point of his research was an account of tobacco strategies to induce public uncertainty over the ill-effects of smoking. In doing so he coined the term agnotology, the study of the construction of public ignorance and doubt through propaganda and misleading scientific publication.42 Internal memos from tobacco companies revealed this to be an explicit corporate strategy and it is a tactic at the heart of much organised climate science denial. The Heartland-funded NIPCC report, “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” is a text dedicated to this cause.43

These tactics are effective. The perception of even a small amount of scientific disagreement makes people think that no one knows the truth.44 Activists therefore work hard to inflate the size of science dissent.41,45 Over 97% of the scientific community researching in climate science agree that AGW is real and the consensus has been in place for decades.11,45 Despite this, only a minority of Americans believe that most scientists are in agreement on AGW.46,47 Organised disinformation has led to a perception that there is no consensus on AGW. The opposite is true.

A second, pragmatic reason for attacking established science is that doing so can garner votes for politicians and, in particular, those advancing a populist mandate. Populist leaders claim they will prioritise the interests and culture of the native populace and deliver them from the impositions of previous establishment elites. Scientists and academics are often among those proposed elites so there are votes to be won on an anti-intellectual platform that derides the apparent tyrannies of vaccine schedules and carbon footprint regulations. This rhetoric has accompanied a global rise in populist governments espousing anti-AGW, anti-vaccine and other anti-science messages.7,48,49 WHO cite the politicisation of immunisation as a growing component of vaccine hesitancy, and several European measles epidemics have been linked explicitly to populist campaigns.7,48

Solutions

Corporate attacks on science that are motivated by profit have solutions in public awareness, investigative journalism, legislation and prosecution by citizen-centric governments that drive policies best for health and humanity rather than inducements for re-election.

When individuals reject a widely-recognised scientific consensus they usually do so not through lack of education or facts, but from culturally engrained instincts that are reinforced by distrust of experts and authority and varying degrees of conspiracy ideation. For the most part those opinions are resistant to facts and, if the individual is an activist whose identity is tied up in the cause, nothing is likely to change his or her mind. But what should we say to those who are sitting on the fence? Vaccine hesitancy is multifactorial and WHO emphasises that the key local barriers must be identified and targeted specifically.10 This article does not try to address all those issues but there is advice from communication research on encountering science denial in general. The acceptance of science propositions is more likely when information is given in the form of narratives and examples rather than by pushing facts.24 The first paragraph of this article is one such narrative. If there is a single fact worth emphasising, it is to emphasise the expert scientific consensus. The perception of even the smallest amount of disagreement within the science community tends to cast doubt on the science findings for individuals.44 For this reason activists work hard to promote a notion of science discord and narratives must redress that.

If people are to change their minds they need to be able to do so without losing their sense of ideological or group identity. There is therefore better acceptance of a message if it comes from the same cultural group, or by educators emphasising common interests and empathising with common fears.50 The acceptance of AGW by conservatives and evangelicals is greater when the message is delivered by conservatives and evangelicals, and vaccination rates among the Minneapolis Somali have greatly improved because the message to vaccinate is now coming from leaders in that community.50,51

Facts may not turn around a committed science denier, but education, communication and public engagement demonstrably improve public trust in science, and concerted efforts are being made in these areas. The result is that the majority of the public still value science, trust scientists and want rational science decision making. It is this majority that we must hope will ultimately restore public preference for fact and truth and prevent science deniers being elected to power.

Naomi Oreskes, an American science historian, suggests scientists should also be less coy and start talking about so-called ‘contentious’ areas such as AGW as scientific fact.45 There is a tendency to preface public information with philosophical caveats regarding the provisional nature of science knowledge and its inherent uncertainties. While this is philosophically accurate, it is also the case that we do have knowledge of AGW, vaccine safety, Big Bang theory and evolution that are facts by any standard. Furthermore, the crucial issue is not so much what qualifies as a scientific fact but what is the best source of science information on which to make reliable decisions today? That has to be replicated, peer-reviewed science findings that are the long-term consensus of the expert scientific community working in that field. If we are not to make decisions based on that source, what should we base them on?

Summary

Abstract

Across the world highly educated, science-literate parents are refusing to have their children vaccinated against contagious diseases. Decades of international, peer-reviewed climate science is being dismissed as institutional conspiracy. Activists troll and harass scientists who come to unfavourable conclusions in pet areas such as genome modification, childhood memory recall, chronic fatigue syndrome and even the hazards of smoking. And somewhat legitimising this behaviour are rising numbers of populist leaders who pour scorn on whichever science is inconvenient to their popularity. Science denial is tangible on a day-to-day basis and has measurable detriment to health and education. This article outlines the key research underpinning its ideological, psychological and pragmatic motivations.

Aim

Method

Results

Conclusion

Author Information

Alan McLintic, Department of Anaesthesia, Middlemore Hospital, Auckland.

Acknowledgements

Correspondence

Dr Alan McLintic, Department of Anaesthesia, Middlemore Hospital, 100 Hospital Road, Otahuhu, Auckland 2025.

Correspondence Email

amclintic@middlemore.co.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

  1. Dyer O. Measles outbreak in Somali American community follows anti-vaccine talks. BMJ 2017; 357:j2378.
  2. Bahta L, Ashkir A. Addressing MMR Vaccine Resistance in Minnesota’s Somali Community. Minn Med 2015; 98:33-6.
  3. Slattery D. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. headlines antivaccine rally in Albany amid measles outbreak. New York Daily News 2019 May 14.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. measles cases in first five months of 2019 surpass total cases per year for past 25 years. CDC Newsroom: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2019.
  5. Lancet Editors. Looking beyond the Decade of Vaccines. The Lancet 2018; 392:2139.
  6. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Vaccine Confidence Project. . London: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
  7. SAGE. 2018 Assessment report of the Global Vaccine Action Plan. Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018.
  8. Anti-vaccine billboard near Middlemore Hospital removed after raft of complaints. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12135662 New Zealand Herald 2018 2nd October.
  9. Broughton C. One in two children not fully immunised at Christchurch’s Helios medical centre. Stuff. Wellington, New Zealand2019.
  10. World Health Organization. Report of the SAGE working group on vaccine hesitancy.: World Health Organization; 2014 12th November 2014.
  11. Cook J, Nuccitelli D, Green S, et al. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research 2013; 8.
  12. Masson-Delmotte V, Zhai P, Pörtner HO, et al. IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. Geneva, Switzerland: World Meteorological Organization; 2018.
  13. Hansson S. Science denial as a form of pseudoscience. Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 2017; 63:39–47.
  14. Lewandowsky S, Mann M, Bauld L, Hastings G, Loftus E. The Subterranean War on Science. Psychological Science2013.
  15. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Perceptions of Science in America. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences; 2018.
  16. National Science Board. Science and Engineering Indicators Digest 2018. Alexandria, VA: National Science Foundation; 2018.
  17. Mori I. Wellcome Trust Monitor, Wave 3. London: Wellcome Trust2016.
  18. Nielsen. Report on public attitudes towards science and technology2014 October 2014.
  19. Allum N, Sturgis P, Tabourazi D, Brunton Smith I. Science knowledge and attitudes across cultures: A meta–analysis. Public Understanding of Science 2008; 17:35
  20. Drummond C, Fischoff B. Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 2017; 114:9587–92.
  21. Funk C, Kennedy B. The New Food Fights: US Public divides over food science: Pew Research Centre; 2016.
  22. Funk C, Ranie L. Americans, Politics and Science Issues.: Pew Research Centre; 2015.
  23. Kahan DM, Peters E, Wittlin M, et al. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks Nature Climate Science 2012; 2:732.
  24. Lewandowsky S, Oberauer K. Motivated rejection of science. Current directions in Psychological Science 2016; 25:217–22.
  25. Kahan D, Braman D, Cohen G, Gastil J, Slovic P. Who fears the HPV vaccine, who doesn’t, and why? An experimental study of the mechanisms of cultural cognition. Law and Human Behavior 2012; 34:501–16.
  26. Kahan D, Jenkins-Smith H, Braman D. Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Journal of Risk Research 2011; 14:147–74.
  27. Kahan DM. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 2015; 36.
  28. Kahan D, Peters E, Cantrell Dawson E, Slovic P. Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government. Behavioural public policy 2013; 1:54–86.
  29. Nyhan B, Reifler J, Richey S, Freed GL. Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics 2014; 133:e835–42.
  30. Gauchat G. Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American sociological review 2012; 77:167–87.
  31. Lewandowsky S, Gignac GE, Oberauer K. The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science. PLoS One 2013:10.
  32. Douglas KM, Sutton RM, Cichocka A. The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 2017; 26:538–42.
  33. van der Linden S. Moon Landing Faked!!!—Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories. Scientific American Mind 2013 April 30.
  34. Goertzel T. Conspiracy theories in science. EMBO reports 2010; 11:493–9.
  35. van der Linden S. The conspiracy-effect: Exposure to conspiracy theories (about global warming) decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance. Personality and indiviual differences 2015; 87:171–3.
  36. Oliver JE, Wood T. Medical conspiracy theories and health behaviors in the United States. JAMA internal medicine 2014; 174:817–8.
  37. Fairleigh Dickinson University. Fairleigh Dickinson poll shows 90% of Trump and Clinton supporters believe in conspiracies that smear the candidate they oppose: Fairleigh Dickinson University; 2016.
  38. Jolley D, Douglas KM. The social consequences of conspiracism: Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases intentions to engage in politics and to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Br J Psychol 2014; 105:35–56.
  39. Jolley D, Douglas KM. The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PLoS One 2014; 9:e89177.
  40. Michaels D. Doubt is their product : how industry’s assault on science threatens your health. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008.
  41. Oreskes N. The fact of uncertainty, the uncertainty of facts and the cultural resonance of doubt. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A-Mathetmatical and Physical 2015; 373.
  42. Proctor R. Golden holocaust : origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2011.
  43. Idso CD, Carter Robert M, Singer FA. Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming: The NIPCC Report on Scientific Consensus: The Heartland Institute; 2016.
  44. Aklin M, Urpelainen J. Perceptions of scientific dissent undermine public support for environmental policy. Enviornmental Science and Policy 2014; 38:173–7.
  45. Oreskes N, Conway EM. Defeating the merchants of doubt. Nature 2010; 465:686–7.
  46. van der Linden S, Leiserowitz A, Feinberg G, Maibach E. How to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change: Plain facts, pie charts, or metaphors? Climatic Change 2014; 126:255–62.
  47. Ding D, Maibach E, Zhao X, Roser-Renouf C, Leiserowitz A. Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement. Nature Climate Change 2010; 1:462–6.
  48. Kennedy J. Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data. European Journal of Public Health 2019.
  49. Larson HJ. The state of vaccine confidence. The Lancet 2018; 392:2244–5.
  50. Webb B, Hayhoe D. Assessing the Influence of an Educational Presentation on Climate Change Beliefs at an Evangelical Christian College. Journal of Geoscience Education 2017; 65:272–82.
  51. Buncome A. How a Muslim community overcame disinformation linking vaccination to Autism. Independent 2018 6th May.

Contact diana@nzma.org.nz
for the PDF of this article

View Article PDF

In 2007 a Minneapolis special education survey raised concerns within the Somali community about a predisposition for autism. This was a signal for anti-vaccination activists to swoop and cultivate the perennial scapegoat, MMR vaccine.1 Subsequent analysis did not show a greater Somali susceptibility to autism but by that time MMR had been demonised and vaccination rates fell from 92% in 2004 to 42% by 2014.2 Autism rates did not change over this period but children became vulnerable to measles. The first outbreak was in 2011 and the second, in 2017, was one of the largest US outbreaks of measles in the last two decades. Despite this ‘lesson’, there is burgeoning vaccine hesitancy in the US and outbreaks have, improbably, become rallying points for activists to allege vaccine injury and institutional cover-up.3,4 The pattern is repeated worldwide. The incitement of vaccine distrust is a causal factor in the European and Asian measles epidemics as well as rubella outbreaks in Japan and diphtheria in Spain.5–7 Measles was declared eradicated from New Zealand in 2017 but has returned in increasing numbers of unvaccinated children. While vaccine hesitancy is multifactorial, home-grown scaremongering and faux immunisation advice are reckless contributors to this problem.8,9

Vaccine hesitancy involves broad issues of accessibility, complacency and trust.10 This article focuses on one element of the latter, the rejection of stable scientific evidence and advice. Why do activists and well-informed parents dismiss the imperative of childhood vaccines when the evidence has never been better understood, better documented and better communicated?

The same is true of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The evidence that humans are warming the planet is overwhelming and is the long-term consensus of virtually the entire expert scientific community researching in that area.11,12 Yet highly educated, science-literate people will not accept AGW and are often scornful of the science and scientists behind it.

Certain areas of science have become a battleground of fact between scientific expertise and lay opinion. It is here that we find ‘science denial’: the dismissal, outside peer review and relevant expertise, of a scientific consensus where the science is characteristically perceived as a threat.13 Arguments are therefore often accompanied by attacks on the integrity of the scientists themselves.14 How widespread is this problem? US national science reports from 2018 show the majority of Americans view scientific research as beneficial, they trust scientists to tell the truth and they trust scientists to report findings accurately.15,16 These findings have been stable over four decades and are mirrored in New Zealand and UK surveys.17,18 The data don’t support a general ‘war on science’ but they do identify a minority who do not trust scientists and who reject their findings. This group can be very vocal and influence policy and community health.

The knowledge deficit model

Do those who reject the scientific consensus simply have a poor understanding of the relevant science? This is called the knowledge deficit model and its importance is that, if science denial stems from a lack of knowledge, better education and communication should improve trust in science. This is borne out in several international surveys that show a weak but consistent relationship between general science knowledge or education attainment and more positive attitudes to science.15,16,18–20 Thus education may improve trust in science.

The problem is that when surveys look at attitudes in specific areas of science the relationship breaks down. American surveys show those with more science knowledge have greater trust in the science of GM food safety, but an international meta-analysis found the relationship was weaker unless that knowledge related to biology or genetics.19,21,22 Science knowledge is only a medium factor in predicting attitude to AGW or evolution and a weak factor in predicting attitudes to vaccine safety.19,22 The role education plays in vaccine acceptance varies between regions. In The Netherlands, Greece, Nigeria and Pakistan, education increases vaccine acceptance, while in China, Bangladesh, Israel, and the US, higher education can be a potential barrier to acceptance.10 Negative correlations are reported in other fields. For certain religious and conservative demographics, attitudes to embryo research, genetic testing, Big Bang theory, evolution and AGW deteriorate as knowledge and education increase.19,20,23

Thus, in these areas of science, and they are common areas for science denial, educational attainment and science knowledge are not necessarily predictive of greater trust in the scientific consensus.

Science denial is a misleading term. People don’t deny Boyle’s Law, they reject science in selected areas such as evolution, AGW, vaccine safety and GM food safety. This has been called the motivated rejection of science and most instances are explained by four overlapping components: cultural cognition, conspiracy ideation, free-market ideology and political populism.24

Cultural cognition

When people lack the time or the expertise to form a real understanding of a science proposal, the strongest influence on their viewpoint tends to be their cultural worldview. These are deeply engrained values and beliefs that give us our sense of self, group identity and how we want society to be. Science proposals are viewed through that lens and it is a self-reaffirming lens because, if the science threatens the worldview, it will tend to be the science that is dismissed rather than the worldview adjusted.25,26 This results in certain areas of science being culturally, politically and religiously polarised.25

Kahan compared subjects’ science knowledge with the probability of getting the answer right to some basic science questions.27 With general science questions there was a strong relationship: the greater the science knowledge, the more likely a correct answer. But when subjects were asked whether AGW was real, the relationship barely reached statistical significance. Science knowledge was no longer predictive of the correct answer. When those subjects were grouped according to political outlook the influence of worldview became clear: those on the Left were agreeing and those on the Right were disagreeing. In the same year Americans were asked if Earth warming is due to human activity. Seventy-one percent of Democrats said yes in contrast to only 27% of Republicans.22

What was particularly revealing in the Kahan study was that, as science knowledge increased, so did the polarisation; the Left became more supportive and the Right became more resistant to AGW. Drummond and Fischoff examined the effects of political and religious identity on the acceptance of core science findings including AGW, evolution and Big Bang theory.20 In each of these areas extreme Conservatives and religious fundamentalists adopted positions counter to established scientific evidence and the greater their science education, the greater was their resistance to that science.

This is the opposite of what we would expect from the knowledge deficit model. The accepted explanation is that the greater your education and science literacy, the more adept you become in interpreting information in ways to support your world view.20,28 Consequently, if a science finding feels threatening, the greater your education, the greater your resistance can become. This is bad news for the role that facts and education might have in preventing or correcting science denial.

In another example, individuals with culturally polarised views on the risks of mandatory human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination were provided with balanced arguments.25 Everyone could now see each other’s point of view. It might be expected that this would move groups towards middle ground but the opposite occurred. The participants became more polarised because they had quickly dismissed conflicting material and been reinforced by new information that bolstered their established position.

In summary, certain areas of science are culturally polarised and minds made up in these areas are not usually swayed by more facts and knowledge. Indeed, giving more facts can harden resistance by amplifying the competing positions.23,26 When parents were provided corrective information on MMR/autism links or images of children sick with measles, parents with the least favourable views on vaccination hardened their intentions not to vaccinate.29 There is no single population that has an anti-science leaning, the demographics depend on which science position is being denied.15 The rejection of stem cell research, evolution, Big Bang theory and AGW are associated strongly with religious and conservative-right ideologies.15,20 Public attitudes to GM food vary between regions as do the demographics of those who distrust messages regarding its safety. In the US, GM food safety is not consistently politically polarised while in Europe distrust is more common among the political left.22 Active distrust in vaccines has a bias towards the young in US surveys but does not polarise to left or right politics.22 The exception is opposition to HPV vaccination which has a conservative bias.25 The politicisation of science is not a new phenomenon, but this is a time when scientific expertise is being openly derided across mass media in favour of politically flavoured opinion. Gauchat looked at 40 years of American data and found that while the public trust in science was stable over that time, political polarisation has increased.30 This was because of a shift in conservative stance. In the 1970s it was the conservatives who had the greatest trust in science but now they are the group in which there is least trust. This is attributed to conservative aversion to increasing amounts of science with regulatory implications, particularly those that increase institutional interference and constrain free-choice.25,30

Conspiracy thinking

Science denial, especially vaccine distrust and AGW rejection, is strongly associated with another style of thinking, conspiracy ideation.24,31–34 The salient features of a conspiracy are that it is a covert plot by a powerful authority in order to accomplish a sinister goal.33,35

When someone rejects an established scientific consensus they frequently explain the consensus in terms of a conspiracy among scientists. Vaccination programmes are regularly attacked by activists as schemes for profit and mass control in which institutions have suppressed evidence of harm.34 The origins and treatment of HIV/AIDs has a long history of denial and conspiracy, and even in 2013 12% of Americans believed it credible that the CIA deliberately infected African Americans with HIV.36 The same survey found 37% believed drug companies pressure the FDA to suppress natural cures for cancer and 20% believed corporations were preventing health officials from revealing links between cell phones and cancer.36 Climate science imperatives are regularly explained as conspiracies. A 2016 poll found that 40% believed it possible that global warming was a myth concocted by scientists.37

Explaining a science position as a conspiracy is not usually an isolated consideration. Conspiracy ideation is an ideological view of how the world works that has a distrust of authority at its core.35 It is a psychological disposition that is amplified by anxiety, lack of social control or a sense of social ostracism.32,33,35 In this context the conspiracies instil a sense of valour, morality and superior insight.31,32 These are powerful, enabling motivations and drive a style of reasoning that tends to deride conventional wisdom and protect the conspiracy at all costs. This is sustained by a heightened tendency for a number of cognitive biases so that strong empirical and statistical evidence is ultimately dismissed in favour of anecdote and anomaly with complete resistance to falsification.31,32

Conspiracy theories perpetuated in mass media may have an insidious effect on our behaviour. The mere exposure to conspiracy theories can induce a sense of disillusionment and disengage people from behavioural changes such as reducing their carbon footprint or vaccinating their children.35,38,39 Why would you vaccinate your children if it were a government plot?

Pragmatic: profit and populism

Science findings are also dismissed for pragmatic reasons. The last hundred years have shown numerous corporations dismissing science that threatened profits. Most notable has been the tobacco industry, which has a long history of attacking research linking smoking to cancer and other health problems. Corporate strategies to discredit research and researchers are well-described elsewhere but there is one tactic worth highlighting because it is an insidious manipulation of public understanding, and that is corporate campaigns specifically designed to make people feel uncertain.40,41

Robert Proctor was the first historian to testify against the tobacco industry. A focal point of his research was an account of tobacco strategies to induce public uncertainty over the ill-effects of smoking. In doing so he coined the term agnotology, the study of the construction of public ignorance and doubt through propaganda and misleading scientific publication.42 Internal memos from tobacco companies revealed this to be an explicit corporate strategy and it is a tactic at the heart of much organised climate science denial. The Heartland-funded NIPCC report, “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” is a text dedicated to this cause.43

These tactics are effective. The perception of even a small amount of scientific disagreement makes people think that no one knows the truth.44 Activists therefore work hard to inflate the size of science dissent.41,45 Over 97% of the scientific community researching in climate science agree that AGW is real and the consensus has been in place for decades.11,45 Despite this, only a minority of Americans believe that most scientists are in agreement on AGW.46,47 Organised disinformation has led to a perception that there is no consensus on AGW. The opposite is true.

A second, pragmatic reason for attacking established science is that doing so can garner votes for politicians and, in particular, those advancing a populist mandate. Populist leaders claim they will prioritise the interests and culture of the native populace and deliver them from the impositions of previous establishment elites. Scientists and academics are often among those proposed elites so there are votes to be won on an anti-intellectual platform that derides the apparent tyrannies of vaccine schedules and carbon footprint regulations. This rhetoric has accompanied a global rise in populist governments espousing anti-AGW, anti-vaccine and other anti-science messages.7,48,49 WHO cite the politicisation of immunisation as a growing component of vaccine hesitancy, and several European measles epidemics have been linked explicitly to populist campaigns.7,48

Solutions

Corporate attacks on science that are motivated by profit have solutions in public awareness, investigative journalism, legislation and prosecution by citizen-centric governments that drive policies best for health and humanity rather than inducements for re-election.

When individuals reject a widely-recognised scientific consensus they usually do so not through lack of education or facts, but from culturally engrained instincts that are reinforced by distrust of experts and authority and varying degrees of conspiracy ideation. For the most part those opinions are resistant to facts and, if the individual is an activist whose identity is tied up in the cause, nothing is likely to change his or her mind. But what should we say to those who are sitting on the fence? Vaccine hesitancy is multifactorial and WHO emphasises that the key local barriers must be identified and targeted specifically.10 This article does not try to address all those issues but there is advice from communication research on encountering science denial in general. The acceptance of science propositions is more likely when information is given in the form of narratives and examples rather than by pushing facts.24 The first paragraph of this article is one such narrative. If there is a single fact worth emphasising, it is to emphasise the expert scientific consensus. The perception of even the smallest amount of disagreement within the science community tends to cast doubt on the science findings for individuals.44 For this reason activists work hard to promote a notion of science discord and narratives must redress that.

If people are to change their minds they need to be able to do so without losing their sense of ideological or group identity. There is therefore better acceptance of a message if it comes from the same cultural group, or by educators emphasising common interests and empathising with common fears.50 The acceptance of AGW by conservatives and evangelicals is greater when the message is delivered by conservatives and evangelicals, and vaccination rates among the Minneapolis Somali have greatly improved because the message to vaccinate is now coming from leaders in that community.50,51

Facts may not turn around a committed science denier, but education, communication and public engagement demonstrably improve public trust in science, and concerted efforts are being made in these areas. The result is that the majority of the public still value science, trust scientists and want rational science decision making. It is this majority that we must hope will ultimately restore public preference for fact and truth and prevent science deniers being elected to power.

Naomi Oreskes, an American science historian, suggests scientists should also be less coy and start talking about so-called ‘contentious’ areas such as AGW as scientific fact.45 There is a tendency to preface public information with philosophical caveats regarding the provisional nature of science knowledge and its inherent uncertainties. While this is philosophically accurate, it is also the case that we do have knowledge of AGW, vaccine safety, Big Bang theory and evolution that are facts by any standard. Furthermore, the crucial issue is not so much what qualifies as a scientific fact but what is the best source of science information on which to make reliable decisions today? That has to be replicated, peer-reviewed science findings that are the long-term consensus of the expert scientific community working in that field. If we are not to make decisions based on that source, what should we base them on?

Summary

Abstract

Across the world highly educated, science-literate parents are refusing to have their children vaccinated against contagious diseases. Decades of international, peer-reviewed climate science is being dismissed as institutional conspiracy. Activists troll and harass scientists who come to unfavourable conclusions in pet areas such as genome modification, childhood memory recall, chronic fatigue syndrome and even the hazards of smoking. And somewhat legitimising this behaviour are rising numbers of populist leaders who pour scorn on whichever science is inconvenient to their popularity. Science denial is tangible on a day-to-day basis and has measurable detriment to health and education. This article outlines the key research underpinning its ideological, psychological and pragmatic motivations.

Aim

Method

Results

Conclusion

Author Information

Alan McLintic, Department of Anaesthesia, Middlemore Hospital, Auckland.

Acknowledgements

Correspondence

Dr Alan McLintic, Department of Anaesthesia, Middlemore Hospital, 100 Hospital Road, Otahuhu, Auckland 2025.

Correspondence Email

amclintic@middlemore.co.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

  1. Dyer O. Measles outbreak in Somali American community follows anti-vaccine talks. BMJ 2017; 357:j2378.
  2. Bahta L, Ashkir A. Addressing MMR Vaccine Resistance in Minnesota’s Somali Community. Minn Med 2015; 98:33-6.
  3. Slattery D. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. headlines antivaccine rally in Albany amid measles outbreak. New York Daily News 2019 May 14.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. measles cases in first five months of 2019 surpass total cases per year for past 25 years. CDC Newsroom: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2019.
  5. Lancet Editors. Looking beyond the Decade of Vaccines. The Lancet 2018; 392:2139.
  6. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Vaccine Confidence Project. . London: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
  7. SAGE. 2018 Assessment report of the Global Vaccine Action Plan. Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018.
  8. Anti-vaccine billboard near Middlemore Hospital removed after raft of complaints. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12135662 New Zealand Herald 2018 2nd October.
  9. Broughton C. One in two children not fully immunised at Christchurch’s Helios medical centre. Stuff. Wellington, New Zealand2019.
  10. World Health Organization. Report of the SAGE working group on vaccine hesitancy.: World Health Organization; 2014 12th November 2014.
  11. Cook J, Nuccitelli D, Green S, et al. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research 2013; 8.
  12. Masson-Delmotte V, Zhai P, Pörtner HO, et al. IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. Geneva, Switzerland: World Meteorological Organization; 2018.
  13. Hansson S. Science denial as a form of pseudoscience. Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 2017; 63:39–47.
  14. Lewandowsky S, Mann M, Bauld L, Hastings G, Loftus E. The Subterranean War on Science. Psychological Science2013.
  15. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Perceptions of Science in America. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences; 2018.
  16. National Science Board. Science and Engineering Indicators Digest 2018. Alexandria, VA: National Science Foundation; 2018.
  17. Mori I. Wellcome Trust Monitor, Wave 3. London: Wellcome Trust2016.
  18. Nielsen. Report on public attitudes towards science and technology2014 October 2014.
  19. Allum N, Sturgis P, Tabourazi D, Brunton Smith I. Science knowledge and attitudes across cultures: A meta–analysis. Public Understanding of Science 2008; 17:35
  20. Drummond C, Fischoff B. Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 2017; 114:9587–92.
  21. Funk C, Kennedy B. The New Food Fights: US Public divides over food science: Pew Research Centre; 2016.
  22. Funk C, Ranie L. Americans, Politics and Science Issues.: Pew Research Centre; 2015.
  23. Kahan DM, Peters E, Wittlin M, et al. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks Nature Climate Science 2012; 2:732.
  24. Lewandowsky S, Oberauer K. Motivated rejection of science. Current directions in Psychological Science 2016; 25:217–22.
  25. Kahan D, Braman D, Cohen G, Gastil J, Slovic P. Who fears the HPV vaccine, who doesn’t, and why? An experimental study of the mechanisms of cultural cognition. Law and Human Behavior 2012; 34:501–16.
  26. Kahan D, Jenkins-Smith H, Braman D. Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Journal of Risk Research 2011; 14:147–74.
  27. Kahan DM. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 2015; 36.
  28. Kahan D, Peters E, Cantrell Dawson E, Slovic P. Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government. Behavioural public policy 2013; 1:54–86.
  29. Nyhan B, Reifler J, Richey S, Freed GL. Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics 2014; 133:e835–42.
  30. Gauchat G. Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American sociological review 2012; 77:167–87.
  31. Lewandowsky S, Gignac GE, Oberauer K. The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science. PLoS One 2013:10.
  32. Douglas KM, Sutton RM, Cichocka A. The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 2017; 26:538–42.
  33. van der Linden S. Moon Landing Faked!!!—Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories. Scientific American Mind 2013 April 30.
  34. Goertzel T. Conspiracy theories in science. EMBO reports 2010; 11:493–9.
  35. van der Linden S. The conspiracy-effect: Exposure to conspiracy theories (about global warming) decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance. Personality and indiviual differences 2015; 87:171–3.
  36. Oliver JE, Wood T. Medical conspiracy theories and health behaviors in the United States. JAMA internal medicine 2014; 174:817–8.
  37. Fairleigh Dickinson University. Fairleigh Dickinson poll shows 90% of Trump and Clinton supporters believe in conspiracies that smear the candidate they oppose: Fairleigh Dickinson University; 2016.
  38. Jolley D, Douglas KM. The social consequences of conspiracism: Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases intentions to engage in politics and to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Br J Psychol 2014; 105:35–56.
  39. Jolley D, Douglas KM. The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PLoS One 2014; 9:e89177.
  40. Michaels D. Doubt is their product : how industry’s assault on science threatens your health. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008.
  41. Oreskes N. The fact of uncertainty, the uncertainty of facts and the cultural resonance of doubt. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A-Mathetmatical and Physical 2015; 373.
  42. Proctor R. Golden holocaust : origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2011.
  43. Idso CD, Carter Robert M, Singer FA. Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming: The NIPCC Report on Scientific Consensus: The Heartland Institute; 2016.
  44. Aklin M, Urpelainen J. Perceptions of scientific dissent undermine public support for environmental policy. Enviornmental Science and Policy 2014; 38:173–7.
  45. Oreskes N, Conway EM. Defeating the merchants of doubt. Nature 2010; 465:686–7.
  46. van der Linden S, Leiserowitz A, Feinberg G, Maibach E. How to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change: Plain facts, pie charts, or metaphors? Climatic Change 2014; 126:255–62.
  47. Ding D, Maibach E, Zhao X, Roser-Renouf C, Leiserowitz A. Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement. Nature Climate Change 2010; 1:462–6.
  48. Kennedy J. Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data. European Journal of Public Health 2019.
  49. Larson HJ. The state of vaccine confidence. The Lancet 2018; 392:2244–5.
  50. Webb B, Hayhoe D. Assessing the Influence of an Educational Presentation on Climate Change Beliefs at an Evangelical Christian College. Journal of Geoscience Education 2017; 65:272–82.
  51. Buncome A. How a Muslim community overcame disinformation linking vaccination to Autism. Independent 2018 6th May.

Contact diana@nzma.org.nz
for the PDF of this article

View Article PDF

In 2007 a Minneapolis special education survey raised concerns within the Somali community about a predisposition for autism. This was a signal for anti-vaccination activists to swoop and cultivate the perennial scapegoat, MMR vaccine.1 Subsequent analysis did not show a greater Somali susceptibility to autism but by that time MMR had been demonised and vaccination rates fell from 92% in 2004 to 42% by 2014.2 Autism rates did not change over this period but children became vulnerable to measles. The first outbreak was in 2011 and the second, in 2017, was one of the largest US outbreaks of measles in the last two decades. Despite this ‘lesson’, there is burgeoning vaccine hesitancy in the US and outbreaks have, improbably, become rallying points for activists to allege vaccine injury and institutional cover-up.3,4 The pattern is repeated worldwide. The incitement of vaccine distrust is a causal factor in the European and Asian measles epidemics as well as rubella outbreaks in Japan and diphtheria in Spain.5–7 Measles was declared eradicated from New Zealand in 2017 but has returned in increasing numbers of unvaccinated children. While vaccine hesitancy is multifactorial, home-grown scaremongering and faux immunisation advice are reckless contributors to this problem.8,9

Vaccine hesitancy involves broad issues of accessibility, complacency and trust.10 This article focuses on one element of the latter, the rejection of stable scientific evidence and advice. Why do activists and well-informed parents dismiss the imperative of childhood vaccines when the evidence has never been better understood, better documented and better communicated?

The same is true of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The evidence that humans are warming the planet is overwhelming and is the long-term consensus of virtually the entire expert scientific community researching in that area.11,12 Yet highly educated, science-literate people will not accept AGW and are often scornful of the science and scientists behind it.

Certain areas of science have become a battleground of fact between scientific expertise and lay opinion. It is here that we find ‘science denial’: the dismissal, outside peer review and relevant expertise, of a scientific consensus where the science is characteristically perceived as a threat.13 Arguments are therefore often accompanied by attacks on the integrity of the scientists themselves.14 How widespread is this problem? US national science reports from 2018 show the majority of Americans view scientific research as beneficial, they trust scientists to tell the truth and they trust scientists to report findings accurately.15,16 These findings have been stable over four decades and are mirrored in New Zealand and UK surveys.17,18 The data don’t support a general ‘war on science’ but they do identify a minority who do not trust scientists and who reject their findings. This group can be very vocal and influence policy and community health.

The knowledge deficit model

Do those who reject the scientific consensus simply have a poor understanding of the relevant science? This is called the knowledge deficit model and its importance is that, if science denial stems from a lack of knowledge, better education and communication should improve trust in science. This is borne out in several international surveys that show a weak but consistent relationship between general science knowledge or education attainment and more positive attitudes to science.15,16,18–20 Thus education may improve trust in science.

The problem is that when surveys look at attitudes in specific areas of science the relationship breaks down. American surveys show those with more science knowledge have greater trust in the science of GM food safety, but an international meta-analysis found the relationship was weaker unless that knowledge related to biology or genetics.19,21,22 Science knowledge is only a medium factor in predicting attitude to AGW or evolution and a weak factor in predicting attitudes to vaccine safety.19,22 The role education plays in vaccine acceptance varies between regions. In The Netherlands, Greece, Nigeria and Pakistan, education increases vaccine acceptance, while in China, Bangladesh, Israel, and the US, higher education can be a potential barrier to acceptance.10 Negative correlations are reported in other fields. For certain religious and conservative demographics, attitudes to embryo research, genetic testing, Big Bang theory, evolution and AGW deteriorate as knowledge and education increase.19,20,23

Thus, in these areas of science, and they are common areas for science denial, educational attainment and science knowledge are not necessarily predictive of greater trust in the scientific consensus.

Science denial is a misleading term. People don’t deny Boyle’s Law, they reject science in selected areas such as evolution, AGW, vaccine safety and GM food safety. This has been called the motivated rejection of science and most instances are explained by four overlapping components: cultural cognition, conspiracy ideation, free-market ideology and political populism.24

Cultural cognition

When people lack the time or the expertise to form a real understanding of a science proposal, the strongest influence on their viewpoint tends to be their cultural worldview. These are deeply engrained values and beliefs that give us our sense of self, group identity and how we want society to be. Science proposals are viewed through that lens and it is a self-reaffirming lens because, if the science threatens the worldview, it will tend to be the science that is dismissed rather than the worldview adjusted.25,26 This results in certain areas of science being culturally, politically and religiously polarised.25

Kahan compared subjects’ science knowledge with the probability of getting the answer right to some basic science questions.27 With general science questions there was a strong relationship: the greater the science knowledge, the more likely a correct answer. But when subjects were asked whether AGW was real, the relationship barely reached statistical significance. Science knowledge was no longer predictive of the correct answer. When those subjects were grouped according to political outlook the influence of worldview became clear: those on the Left were agreeing and those on the Right were disagreeing. In the same year Americans were asked if Earth warming is due to human activity. Seventy-one percent of Democrats said yes in contrast to only 27% of Republicans.22

What was particularly revealing in the Kahan study was that, as science knowledge increased, so did the polarisation; the Left became more supportive and the Right became more resistant to AGW. Drummond and Fischoff examined the effects of political and religious identity on the acceptance of core science findings including AGW, evolution and Big Bang theory.20 In each of these areas extreme Conservatives and religious fundamentalists adopted positions counter to established scientific evidence and the greater their science education, the greater was their resistance to that science.

This is the opposite of what we would expect from the knowledge deficit model. The accepted explanation is that the greater your education and science literacy, the more adept you become in interpreting information in ways to support your world view.20,28 Consequently, if a science finding feels threatening, the greater your education, the greater your resistance can become. This is bad news for the role that facts and education might have in preventing or correcting science denial.

In another example, individuals with culturally polarised views on the risks of mandatory human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination were provided with balanced arguments.25 Everyone could now see each other’s point of view. It might be expected that this would move groups towards middle ground but the opposite occurred. The participants became more polarised because they had quickly dismissed conflicting material and been reinforced by new information that bolstered their established position.

In summary, certain areas of science are culturally polarised and minds made up in these areas are not usually swayed by more facts and knowledge. Indeed, giving more facts can harden resistance by amplifying the competing positions.23,26 When parents were provided corrective information on MMR/autism links or images of children sick with measles, parents with the least favourable views on vaccination hardened their intentions not to vaccinate.29 There is no single population that has an anti-science leaning, the demographics depend on which science position is being denied.15 The rejection of stem cell research, evolution, Big Bang theory and AGW are associated strongly with religious and conservative-right ideologies.15,20 Public attitudes to GM food vary between regions as do the demographics of those who distrust messages regarding its safety. In the US, GM food safety is not consistently politically polarised while in Europe distrust is more common among the political left.22 Active distrust in vaccines has a bias towards the young in US surveys but does not polarise to left or right politics.22 The exception is opposition to HPV vaccination which has a conservative bias.25 The politicisation of science is not a new phenomenon, but this is a time when scientific expertise is being openly derided across mass media in favour of politically flavoured opinion. Gauchat looked at 40 years of American data and found that while the public trust in science was stable over that time, political polarisation has increased.30 This was because of a shift in conservative stance. In the 1970s it was the conservatives who had the greatest trust in science but now they are the group in which there is least trust. This is attributed to conservative aversion to increasing amounts of science with regulatory implications, particularly those that increase institutional interference and constrain free-choice.25,30

Conspiracy thinking

Science denial, especially vaccine distrust and AGW rejection, is strongly associated with another style of thinking, conspiracy ideation.24,31–34 The salient features of a conspiracy are that it is a covert plot by a powerful authority in order to accomplish a sinister goal.33,35

When someone rejects an established scientific consensus they frequently explain the consensus in terms of a conspiracy among scientists. Vaccination programmes are regularly attacked by activists as schemes for profit and mass control in which institutions have suppressed evidence of harm.34 The origins and treatment of HIV/AIDs has a long history of denial and conspiracy, and even in 2013 12% of Americans believed it credible that the CIA deliberately infected African Americans with HIV.36 The same survey found 37% believed drug companies pressure the FDA to suppress natural cures for cancer and 20% believed corporations were preventing health officials from revealing links between cell phones and cancer.36 Climate science imperatives are regularly explained as conspiracies. A 2016 poll found that 40% believed it possible that global warming was a myth concocted by scientists.37

Explaining a science position as a conspiracy is not usually an isolated consideration. Conspiracy ideation is an ideological view of how the world works that has a distrust of authority at its core.35 It is a psychological disposition that is amplified by anxiety, lack of social control or a sense of social ostracism.32,33,35 In this context the conspiracies instil a sense of valour, morality and superior insight.31,32 These are powerful, enabling motivations and drive a style of reasoning that tends to deride conventional wisdom and protect the conspiracy at all costs. This is sustained by a heightened tendency for a number of cognitive biases so that strong empirical and statistical evidence is ultimately dismissed in favour of anecdote and anomaly with complete resistance to falsification.31,32

Conspiracy theories perpetuated in mass media may have an insidious effect on our behaviour. The mere exposure to conspiracy theories can induce a sense of disillusionment and disengage people from behavioural changes such as reducing their carbon footprint or vaccinating their children.35,38,39 Why would you vaccinate your children if it were a government plot?

Pragmatic: profit and populism

Science findings are also dismissed for pragmatic reasons. The last hundred years have shown numerous corporations dismissing science that threatened profits. Most notable has been the tobacco industry, which has a long history of attacking research linking smoking to cancer and other health problems. Corporate strategies to discredit research and researchers are well-described elsewhere but there is one tactic worth highlighting because it is an insidious manipulation of public understanding, and that is corporate campaigns specifically designed to make people feel uncertain.40,41

Robert Proctor was the first historian to testify against the tobacco industry. A focal point of his research was an account of tobacco strategies to induce public uncertainty over the ill-effects of smoking. In doing so he coined the term agnotology, the study of the construction of public ignorance and doubt through propaganda and misleading scientific publication.42 Internal memos from tobacco companies revealed this to be an explicit corporate strategy and it is a tactic at the heart of much organised climate science denial. The Heartland-funded NIPCC report, “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” is a text dedicated to this cause.43

These tactics are effective. The perception of even a small amount of scientific disagreement makes people think that no one knows the truth.44 Activists therefore work hard to inflate the size of science dissent.41,45 Over 97% of the scientific community researching in climate science agree that AGW is real and the consensus has been in place for decades.11,45 Despite this, only a minority of Americans believe that most scientists are in agreement on AGW.46,47 Organised disinformation has led to a perception that there is no consensus on AGW. The opposite is true.

A second, pragmatic reason for attacking established science is that doing so can garner votes for politicians and, in particular, those advancing a populist mandate. Populist leaders claim they will prioritise the interests and culture of the native populace and deliver them from the impositions of previous establishment elites. Scientists and academics are often among those proposed elites so there are votes to be won on an anti-intellectual platform that derides the apparent tyrannies of vaccine schedules and carbon footprint regulations. This rhetoric has accompanied a global rise in populist governments espousing anti-AGW, anti-vaccine and other anti-science messages.7,48,49 WHO cite the politicisation of immunisation as a growing component of vaccine hesitancy, and several European measles epidemics have been linked explicitly to populist campaigns.7,48

Solutions

Corporate attacks on science that are motivated by profit have solutions in public awareness, investigative journalism, legislation and prosecution by citizen-centric governments that drive policies best for health and humanity rather than inducements for re-election.

When individuals reject a widely-recognised scientific consensus they usually do so not through lack of education or facts, but from culturally engrained instincts that are reinforced by distrust of experts and authority and varying degrees of conspiracy ideation. For the most part those opinions are resistant to facts and, if the individual is an activist whose identity is tied up in the cause, nothing is likely to change his or her mind. But what should we say to those who are sitting on the fence? Vaccine hesitancy is multifactorial and WHO emphasises that the key local barriers must be identified and targeted specifically.10 This article does not try to address all those issues but there is advice from communication research on encountering science denial in general. The acceptance of science propositions is more likely when information is given in the form of narratives and examples rather than by pushing facts.24 The first paragraph of this article is one such narrative. If there is a single fact worth emphasising, it is to emphasise the expert scientific consensus. The perception of even the smallest amount of disagreement within the science community tends to cast doubt on the science findings for individuals.44 For this reason activists work hard to promote a notion of science discord and narratives must redress that.

If people are to change their minds they need to be able to do so without losing their sense of ideological or group identity. There is therefore better acceptance of a message if it comes from the same cultural group, or by educators emphasising common interests and empathising with common fears.50 The acceptance of AGW by conservatives and evangelicals is greater when the message is delivered by conservatives and evangelicals, and vaccination rates among the Minneapolis Somali have greatly improved because the message to vaccinate is now coming from leaders in that community.50,51

Facts may not turn around a committed science denier, but education, communication and public engagement demonstrably improve public trust in science, and concerted efforts are being made in these areas. The result is that the majority of the public still value science, trust scientists and want rational science decision making. It is this majority that we must hope will ultimately restore public preference for fact and truth and prevent science deniers being elected to power.

Naomi Oreskes, an American science historian, suggests scientists should also be less coy and start talking about so-called ‘contentious’ areas such as AGW as scientific fact.45 There is a tendency to preface public information with philosophical caveats regarding the provisional nature of science knowledge and its inherent uncertainties. While this is philosophically accurate, it is also the case that we do have knowledge of AGW, vaccine safety, Big Bang theory and evolution that are facts by any standard. Furthermore, the crucial issue is not so much what qualifies as a scientific fact but what is the best source of science information on which to make reliable decisions today? That has to be replicated, peer-reviewed science findings that are the long-term consensus of the expert scientific community working in that field. If we are not to make decisions based on that source, what should we base them on?

Summary

Abstract

Across the world highly educated, science-literate parents are refusing to have their children vaccinated against contagious diseases. Decades of international, peer-reviewed climate science is being dismissed as institutional conspiracy. Activists troll and harass scientists who come to unfavourable conclusions in pet areas such as genome modification, childhood memory recall, chronic fatigue syndrome and even the hazards of smoking. And somewhat legitimising this behaviour are rising numbers of populist leaders who pour scorn on whichever science is inconvenient to their popularity. Science denial is tangible on a day-to-day basis and has measurable detriment to health and education. This article outlines the key research underpinning its ideological, psychological and pragmatic motivations.

Aim

Method

Results

Conclusion

Author Information

Alan McLintic, Department of Anaesthesia, Middlemore Hospital, Auckland.

Acknowledgements

Correspondence

Dr Alan McLintic, Department of Anaesthesia, Middlemore Hospital, 100 Hospital Road, Otahuhu, Auckland 2025.

Correspondence Email

amclintic@middlemore.co.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

  1. Dyer O. Measles outbreak in Somali American community follows anti-vaccine talks. BMJ 2017; 357:j2378.
  2. Bahta L, Ashkir A. Addressing MMR Vaccine Resistance in Minnesota’s Somali Community. Minn Med 2015; 98:33-6.
  3. Slattery D. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. headlines antivaccine rally in Albany amid measles outbreak. New York Daily News 2019 May 14.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. measles cases in first five months of 2019 surpass total cases per year for past 25 years. CDC Newsroom: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2019.
  5. Lancet Editors. Looking beyond the Decade of Vaccines. The Lancet 2018; 392:2139.
  6. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Vaccine Confidence Project. . London: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
  7. SAGE. 2018 Assessment report of the Global Vaccine Action Plan. Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018.
  8. Anti-vaccine billboard near Middlemore Hospital removed after raft of complaints. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12135662 New Zealand Herald 2018 2nd October.
  9. Broughton C. One in two children not fully immunised at Christchurch’s Helios medical centre. Stuff. Wellington, New Zealand2019.
  10. World Health Organization. Report of the SAGE working group on vaccine hesitancy.: World Health Organization; 2014 12th November 2014.
  11. Cook J, Nuccitelli D, Green S, et al. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research 2013; 8.
  12. Masson-Delmotte V, Zhai P, Pörtner HO, et al. IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. Geneva, Switzerland: World Meteorological Organization; 2018.
  13. Hansson S. Science denial as a form of pseudoscience. Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 2017; 63:39–47.
  14. Lewandowsky S, Mann M, Bauld L, Hastings G, Loftus E. The Subterranean War on Science. Psychological Science2013.
  15. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Perceptions of Science in America. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences; 2018.
  16. National Science Board. Science and Engineering Indicators Digest 2018. Alexandria, VA: National Science Foundation; 2018.
  17. Mori I. Wellcome Trust Monitor, Wave 3. London: Wellcome Trust2016.
  18. Nielsen. Report on public attitudes towards science and technology2014 October 2014.
  19. Allum N, Sturgis P, Tabourazi D, Brunton Smith I. Science knowledge and attitudes across cultures: A meta–analysis. Public Understanding of Science 2008; 17:35
  20. Drummond C, Fischoff B. Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 2017; 114:9587–92.
  21. Funk C, Kennedy B. The New Food Fights: US Public divides over food science: Pew Research Centre; 2016.
  22. Funk C, Ranie L. Americans, Politics and Science Issues.: Pew Research Centre; 2015.
  23. Kahan DM, Peters E, Wittlin M, et al. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks Nature Climate Science 2012; 2:732.
  24. Lewandowsky S, Oberauer K. Motivated rejection of science. Current directions in Psychological Science 2016; 25:217–22.
  25. Kahan D, Braman D, Cohen G, Gastil J, Slovic P. Who fears the HPV vaccine, who doesn’t, and why? An experimental study of the mechanisms of cultural cognition. Law and Human Behavior 2012; 34:501–16.
  26. Kahan D, Jenkins-Smith H, Braman D. Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Journal of Risk Research 2011; 14:147–74.
  27. Kahan DM. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 2015; 36.
  28. Kahan D, Peters E, Cantrell Dawson E, Slovic P. Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government. Behavioural public policy 2013; 1:54–86.
  29. Nyhan B, Reifler J, Richey S, Freed GL. Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics 2014; 133:e835–42.
  30. Gauchat G. Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American sociological review 2012; 77:167–87.
  31. Lewandowsky S, Gignac GE, Oberauer K. The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science. PLoS One 2013:10.
  32. Douglas KM, Sutton RM, Cichocka A. The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 2017; 26:538–42.
  33. van der Linden S. Moon Landing Faked!!!—Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories. Scientific American Mind 2013 April 30.
  34. Goertzel T. Conspiracy theories in science. EMBO reports 2010; 11:493–9.
  35. van der Linden S. The conspiracy-effect: Exposure to conspiracy theories (about global warming) decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance. Personality and indiviual differences 2015; 87:171–3.
  36. Oliver JE, Wood T. Medical conspiracy theories and health behaviors in the United States. JAMA internal medicine 2014; 174:817–8.
  37. Fairleigh Dickinson University. Fairleigh Dickinson poll shows 90% of Trump and Clinton supporters believe in conspiracies that smear the candidate they oppose: Fairleigh Dickinson University; 2016.
  38. Jolley D, Douglas KM. The social consequences of conspiracism: Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases intentions to engage in politics and to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Br J Psychol 2014; 105:35–56.
  39. Jolley D, Douglas KM. The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PLoS One 2014; 9:e89177.
  40. Michaels D. Doubt is their product : how industry’s assault on science threatens your health. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008.
  41. Oreskes N. The fact of uncertainty, the uncertainty of facts and the cultural resonance of doubt. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A-Mathetmatical and Physical 2015; 373.
  42. Proctor R. Golden holocaust : origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2011.
  43. Idso CD, Carter Robert M, Singer FA. Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming: The NIPCC Report on Scientific Consensus: The Heartland Institute; 2016.
  44. Aklin M, Urpelainen J. Perceptions of scientific dissent undermine public support for environmental policy. Enviornmental Science and Policy 2014; 38:173–7.
  45. Oreskes N, Conway EM. Defeating the merchants of doubt. Nature 2010; 465:686–7.
  46. van der Linden S, Leiserowitz A, Feinberg G, Maibach E. How to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change: Plain facts, pie charts, or metaphors? Climatic Change 2014; 126:255–62.
  47. Ding D, Maibach E, Zhao X, Roser-Renouf C, Leiserowitz A. Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement. Nature Climate Change 2010; 1:462–6.
  48. Kennedy J. Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data. European Journal of Public Health 2019.
  49. Larson HJ. The state of vaccine confidence. The Lancet 2018; 392:2244–5.
  50. Webb B, Hayhoe D. Assessing the Influence of an Educational Presentation on Climate Change Beliefs at an Evangelical Christian College. Journal of Geoscience Education 2017; 65:272–82.
  51. Buncome A. How a Muslim community overcame disinformation linking vaccination to Autism. Independent 2018 6th May.

Contact diana@nzma.org.nz
for the PDF of this article

Subscriber Content

The full contents of this pages only available to subscribers.

LOGINSUBSCRIBE