Ways of seeing: Reaching those who deny science


Science denial has become deadly.

Too many people are defying the most basic health measures that can prevent COVID-19 — vaccines, masking, and social distancing. Some have died while denying its very existence. Many political leaders have failed to support what scientists know to be effective.

Like me, you might be wondering: How did we get here? What can we do? How do we learn to talk to others and make a difference?

Science denial is not new. Galileo lived out his life in house arrest for his heretical claims that the earth revolved around the sun. Now, with the planet in peril and a pandemic raging, it is more important than ever to understand why we sometimes deny, doubt, or resist scientific explanations — and what we can do to overcome these barriers. This is not an “us and them” situation. All of us are susceptible to ways of thinking that can prevent us from accepting scientific findings.

Here are three psychological challenges that can lead to science denial and suggested action steps to address them, in yourself and with others.

Challenge 1: Social identity

People are social beings and tend to align with those who hold similar beliefs and values. Social media and their powerful, unseen algorithms amplify these alliances. You’re likely to see more of what you already agree with and fewer alternative points of view. When those in your own social circle share misinformation, you are more likely to believe it and share it. Misinformation multiplies and science denial grows.

Action steps: Recognize that we all have multiple social identities. Listen to others’ concerns and try to find common ground. Maybe someone is vaccine-hesitant because so are the mothers in her child’s play group, but she is a caring person and community member, concerned about the risk to immunocompromised individuals. When one identity is blocking acceptance of the science, leverage a second identity to make a connection. Two people on opposite sides of the political continuum might have trouble discussing climate change, but if you draw on your common identity as grandparents concerned about the future of the planet you may better hear one another. We can all learn to be caring, compassionate, curious listeners.

Know that very few individuals rely on a single authority for knowledge and expertise. Vaccine hesitancy has been successfully countered by doctors who persuasively contradict erroneous beliefs from social media, as well as by friends who explain why they changed their own minds. Clergy can step forward, and some have offered places of worship as vaccination hubs.

Challenge 2: Cognitive Biases

Each of us is subject to a range of cognitive biases that can distort our understanding of scientific issues. It would be exhausting to be vigilant deep thinkers all the time, and we all take mental shortcuts. Perhaps you see an article online with a clickbait headline or one with alarming claims about vaccines and you share it because you assume it is true, want it to be, or think it is funny. Maybe you ignore articles that contradict what you think.

Action Steps: Instead of sharing that article without vetting it, learn to slow your thinking down. Monitor the quick, intuitive responses that psychologists call System 1 thinking. Instead turn on the rational, analytical mind of System 2 and ask yourself, how do I know this is true? Is it plausible? Why do I think it is true? Do some fact-checking and read laterally across sites. System 1 is great when you need to brake quickly, but not when you’re trying to decide whether to take Ivermectin to treat COVID. Learn not to immediately accept information that aligns with what you already believe, what is called confirmation bias.

Challenge 3: Understanding and valuing how science works

Science education often focuses on learning facts, with too little attention to how science is conducted. Some people may expect scientific knowledge to always be certain and might not understand that scientific findings change as more evidence is gathered. They may be distrustful of how public health policy shifted around COVID-19, but a “novel” coronavirus is just that — new, unique, not previously studied. Remember wiping down groceries at the outset, and then learning it wasn’t necessary? That’s not because scientists were “flip-flopping,” but because they learned that the main route of transmission is through airborne droplets from an infected person.

Action steps: Recognize that other people (or possibly even you) may be operating with misguided beliefs about science. Work toward adopting and promoting a scientific attitude: an openness to seeking new evidence and a willingness to change one’s mind in light of new evidence. If you’re a teacher or parent, teach the value of science and scientific processes.

Know the difference between denial and skepticism. Healthy productive skepticism is valued by scientists and a part of the scientific process. When you read a catchy headline that eating chocolate early in the day burns fat, take note that it’s a single study with 19 participants, and hold off on spreading chocolate on your toast until you see considerable confirmation.

When you read that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a report based on more than 14,000 studies concluding that the rise in global temperatures is attributable to burning fossil fuels, know that this is settled science. We are losing time to act on the most critical issues facing the planet. Be wary of those with vested interests who try to sow doubt.

Vote for those who support science and who make policy decisions based on science. We have significant problems to solve in this world that depend on your actions.

Barbara Hofer is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Middlebury College and the co-author, with Gale Sinatra, of “Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It” (2021, Oxford University Press). This column is adapted from an article in The Conversation.

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