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A pair of psychologists confront the obstacles that threaten to undermine scientific literacy

Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to do About It

Gale M. Sinatra and Barbara K. Hofer
Oxford University Press
208 pp.
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Are vaccines safe for my baby?” wonders a new mother. After reading a few articles online that seem authoritative, she steps away from the computer and decides that there is not enough evidence to answer her question definitively. This scenario appears in the first of many vignettes in Science Denial that educational psychologists Gale Sinatra and Barbara Hofer use to confront a worrisome problem that extends beyond ideological science denial itself: the denial of science to those who seek credible information and who are often in great need of it.

Most people who search for information online favor trusted, easy-to-find sources. What they encounter is a forum that offers a platform to anyone with an online marketing strategy. Sinatra and Hofer point to a rise in “the sophistication of those who wish to portray fiction as fact.” Herculean efforts are being made by determined lobbies to counter scientific sources and undermine public confidence in science itself, they note, and even websites run by government agencies can sometimes stray from scientific consensus. As intelligent virtual assistants become more widespread and the number of online information searches performed daily continues to rise, we become more and more tethered to an information source that can be as misleading as it is valuable.

Sinatra and Hofer remind us that we are more vulnerable to misinformation than we may think. Those who craft messages that run counter to accepted science know that the layperson’s understanding of science is limited. They know that people are quick to use simple heuristics and the opinions of those around them as substitutes for deeper investigations. Hearing the same message repeatedly and seeing a few friends nod their heads in agreement with it can make it seem more credible. Appeals to remain “fair and balanced” are sometimes used to convince people to give equal consideration to messages that fly in the face of scientific consensus.

The authors join other psychologists who remind us that our own biases can prompt even the most prudent among us to dismiss scientific findings when they conflict with what we think we already know about the world. For example, drivers are known to remain confident in their ability to safely multitask behind the wheel, even when that ability has been measured and confirmed to be poor (1). And once our beliefs have been formulated, we often come to personally identify with them and regard negations of them as personal criticism.

Sinatra and Hofer argue that the path toward a better future starts in schools, at the loftiest conceptual levels. Educators should strive to help kids form what they call a “science attitude”—one that places value on the truth, on hypotheses and theories that have a fair chance to be right or wrong, and most of all on evidence. A science attitude needs to be accompanied by science knowledge, including a familiarity with where good research can be found and a basic understanding of the methods used to evaluate scientific hypotheses, including practices such as peer review and replicability. School curricula, they argue, need to prepare some students to become producers of science and all students to become good consumers of science.

But what can be done about the grown-ups who already hold beliefs that run counter to scientific consensus? The authors offer hope that reason can prevail. Experimental evidence suggests that strongly held beliefs in unsupported theories can be moderated or even overturned using refutational techniques that identify specific misconceptions, state that they are incorrect, and detail the reasons why. The authors describe their success with using these techniques to change, or at least moderate, strong negative opinions about genetically modified foods.

Falling somewhere between academic and trade writing, Science Denial is filled with relatable scenarios, research studies, and helpful advice for individuals, educators, science communicators, and policy-makers. As social media discussions of science topics continue to proliferate and carefully reported coverage of science continues to decline, the authors warn readers to ready themselves for a future in which separating fact and fiction may be more difficult than ever. Their book offers abundant practical guidance to help us meet the challenge.

References and Notes:
1. D. M. Sanbonmatsu, D. L. Strayer, N. Medeiros-Ward, J. M. Watson, PLOS ONE 8, e54402 (2013).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Ames Research Center, NASA, Moffett Field, CA 94035, USA.