This Is Why Some People Don't Believe in Scientific Facts

Science skeptics are not ill-informed, but they tend to cherry-pick information that supports their beliefs.

US science agencies reported in early January that 2016 surpassed both 2014 and 2015 as the hottest year on record. Sixteen of the warmest 17 years ever measured have occurred since 2000. Yet, only 45 percent of Americans agree with the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and it's a very serious problem.

Acceptance of scientific fact divides along partisan lines in the US. Many Republicans doubt the existence of climate change, or that it's a problem caused by humans, despite the plethora of scientific evidence to support it.

Democrats are far more likely to consider climate change a serious problem.

Questioning the validity of science is nothing new in the United States. While researchers have long identified ideology and beliefs as driving forces behind scientific doubt, whether it's climate change, vaccinations or even the link between tobacco and cancer, the recent, high-profile skepticism of proven scientific theories is renewing the importance of science literacy.

Matthew Hornsey, a psychology professor from the University of Queensland, has looked extensively at why some people embrace - and others resist - scientific messages about climate change, vaccines and evolution, among other topics.

In his most recent study, Hornsey led a team that conducted a series of observational studies, surveys and experiments, aimed at revealing the ideologies, cultural norms and cognitive processes that lead some people to question the validity of science. Their goal is to make future science messaging more effective on skeptics.

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It's tempting to think that skepticism is an affliction of the ill-informed, but Hornsey found this to be untrue.

"In fact, among Republicans, climate skepticism is higher among those who are more educated," Hornsey said. "Education in some ways gives you the skills and resources to cherry-pick data and to curate your own sense of reality, one that's in-line with your underlying worldviews," he added.

It's also easy to think, Hornsey said, that all skeptics must have similar geographic, economic or cultural backgrounds. But researchers failed to find a single commonality that was true for all skeptics across the different areas of science that receive the most criticism.

"If you've got a group of climate skeptics in the same room as a group of anti-vaxxers, for example, they'd probably have very little in common," Hornsey commented.

People who are skeptical of science treat facts as more or less relevant depending on whether it supports their opinion or ideology. Saying something is a "fact" or "data" does not change their mind.

Hornsey said skeptics often manipulate data to support their ideas. "1998 was an unusually hot year, so if you look at a graph of global temperatures that starts in 1998, it gives the impression that warming is slower than it would if you started the graph in any other year," he said.

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While it might be difficult to alter a person's view of the role of government in society or whether scientists are trustworthy, Hornsey said it is possible for science communicators to present their findings in a way that might be more digestible to skeptics.

Researchers found that identifying a person's underlying motive or belief, then aligning messages with those ideas, was the most effective strategy.

"There's evidence that Republicans are more skeptical about climate change because they have a strong moral suspicion of big government," Hornsey said. "They reject the science because they don't like the solution: government regulations that curb industry."

If you point out that new industries designed to combat climate change could create more jobs and achieve greater energy security, however, a skeptic might be more supportive.

Hornsey noted, "It's amazing how open-minded and curious people can be to science if the science doesn't challenge their underlying ideologies and vested interests."

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