If the Experts Agree, Maybe You Should Too
Communication about scientific consensus can help shift beliefs.
Posted November 6, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- There is scientific consensus—that is, agreement among scientists—with respect to a wide range of controversial topics.
- Science communicators have feared that expressing consensus might lead to a backlash in which people double down on erroneous beliefs.
- A new meta-analysis demonstrates that the communication of scientific consensus can change beliefs toward the consensus in many cases.
- The conclusion: Science communicators should amplify consensus, especially when it could have far-reaching positive consequences.
Climate change. Vaccinations. Genetically modified food. These are some of the most controversial topics for which we actually have scientific consensus, which refers to a high level of agreement among scientists with expertise in a particular area.
Recently published behavioral science research documented that communicating scientific consensus regarding controversial topics leads to a higher belief that there actually is scientific consensus in a particular area. And communicating scientific consensus can also shift people’s beliefs toward the consensus on controversial topics.
The researchers behind this finding studied controversial topics on which scientists largely agree despite the controversy. To wit: The planet is warming and it is leading to consequences, such as widespread public health issues. Safe genetically modified food could help alleviate global hunger. And safe and effective vaccines are available for many diseases. The researchers wanted to know how the controversy might diminish when people are informed of this widespread agreement among scientists.
Consensus Through Meta-Analysis
It turns out there have been many studies on the effects of sharing scientific consensus on a topic. Specifically, there have been a total of 43 on these three topics alone, all of which were experiments—that is, half of the participants learned about a scientific consensus on one of these topics, and half did not. The important part is that an experiment requires random assignment. So, participants don’t choose which group they would be in. Rather, some kind of a computerized randomization process (such as this one) makes that call.
Because there are so many experiments, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis, essentially a study of studies in which they look at the whole picture based on all of the experiments that have been conducted. We have written about the benefits of meta-analysis previously, including that replication—or a repeat of studies—is built in, giving us more confidence in scientific findings. You could say that a meta-analysis is kind of a scientific consensus of sorts.
Communicating Consensus Works
The meta-analysis indicated that people were more likely to believe that there actually was agreement among scientists when they were in the group that heard that there was a scientific consensus than when they were not in that group. More importantly, people who heard about a scientific consensus were more likely to change their views to match that consensus than were those who did not learn about the consensus.
The researchers note that these effects were less robust for the topic of vaccination, likely because there were only two experiments in this area. More research on this particularly controversial topic is needed, but the direction of the findings fits with the general trend. But overall, the researchers wrote: “The current work suggests that many people put at least some value in scientific consensus and are willing to update their beliefs if they are not in line with such consensus.”
This finding is important because some science communicators have feared that too much discussion of scientific consensus could backfire, leading people to dig in to their preexisting beliefs and deepening polarization among a population. This was not the case. The researchers concluded that “it is unlikely that the effects of scientific-consensus messaging are exactly the same for all individuals,” but the chances of a backlash, or of having no effect at all, “are slim.”
The takeaway: Science communicators, including scientists and journalists, should amplify consensus when it exists, especially about areas that could have profound impacts on public health and the fate of our planet.
van Stekelenburg, A., Schaap, G., Veling, H., Van't Riet, J., & Buijzen, M. (2022). Scientific consensus communication about contested science: A preregistered meta-analysis. Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976221083219