Education alone won’t change anti-science views, study finds

By Joan Conrow

July 22, 2022

We’ve all met know-it-alls. But even worse are the know-it-alls who know nothing.

Now a new study finds that those who suffer from “knowledge overconfidence” — or the belief that they’re highly informed — tend to be factually uninformed.

And this can prompt them to reject the scientific consensus on issues like genetically modified foods, climate change, nuclear power, homeopathic medicine, evolution, the Big Bang theory and COVID-19 mitigation measures.

But because those who know less about relevant issues think they know more, the standard practice of using education to effect changes in mistaken beliefs typically doesn’t work, the authors find.

“Our research suggests that there may be a problem of overconfidence getting in the way of learning, because if people think they know a lot, they have minimal motivation to learn more,” said lead author Nick Light, a Portland State University assistant professor of marketing. “People with more extreme anti-scientific attitudes might first need to learn about their relative ignorance on the issues before being taught specifics of established scientific knowledge.”

The study, published in Science Advances, finds that “across seven critical issues that enjoy substantial scientific consensus, as well as attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines and mitigation measures like mask wearing and social distancing, results indicate that those with the highest levels of opposition have the lowest levels of objective knowledge but the highest levels of subjective knowledge.”

The authors note “sizable gaps in agreement between scientists and laypeople on whether genetically modified (GM) foods are safe to eat, climate change is due to human activity, humans have evolved over time, more nuclear power is necessary, and childhood vaccines should be mandatory.”

Additionally, opposition to COVID-19 vaccines, is helping to fuel the continuation of the pandemic.

Anti-consensus views aren’t benign, the authors point out. The “consequences are dire, including property destruction, malnutrition, disease, financial hardship and death.”

It’s often believed that anti-consensus views are grounded in a lack of knowledge, which allows rumors, uninformed theories and other misinformation to flourish. If people just knew more, experts reasoned, their beliefs would change accordingly.

But while knowledge may be associated with pro-science attitudes, the study suggests that “subjective knowledge — individuals’ assessments of their own knowledge — may track anti-science attitudes.”

As a result, “fact-based educational interventions are less likely to be effective for this audience,” they conclude. Instead, “focusing on changing individuals’ perceptions of their own knowledge may be a helpful first step.”

Another strategy could be ignoring individual knowledge and focusing instead on bringing the views of influential thought leaders or other change agents into the scientific consensus, since people are more likely to do what they think their community expects them to do.

“Conforming to the consensus is not always recommended,” the authors conclude. “Plato and Galileo both refused to conform, and this helped them to drive society to higher levels of philosophical and scientific understanding, respectively. However, if opposition to the consensus is driven by an illusion of understanding and if that opposition leads to actions that are dangerous to those who do not share in the illusion, then it is incumbent on society to try to change minds in favor of the scientific consensus.”

Photo: Shutterstock/Patrick Daxenbichler