- People often reject scientific consensus if it conflicts with their worldview.
- The staunchest opponents of scientific consensus on a controversial issue are most confident in their understanding of it.
- These same people also tend to have the poorest understanding of the actual facts related to the issue.
- Overconfidence in their understanding prevents people with extreme anti-consensus views from perceiving the gaps in their knowledge.
Sitting in the barber shop a couple of weeks ago, waiting for a haircut, I overheard one customer telling another “the truth” about the COVID pandemic.
“COVID’s not a virus at all,” the man said with impressive conviction. “It’s actually a protein synthesized from snake venom. The government’s adding it to the drinking water of certain target populations to cull the herd.”
When the man to whom he was speaking politely but skeptically asked where he had stumbled upon that particular explanation, the proponent of the venom theory of COVID was completely unfazed. “It’s a scientific fact,” he said. “A well-known chiropractor has done a ton of research on the subject.”
Ever since the COVID pandemic began, such conversations have been commonplace throughout the United States, and while some minor thematic variations may distinguish one from another, they invariably include one common denominator: opposition to whatever strategies the “experts” have proposed to mitigate the societal impact of the virus. Our knee-jerk reaction, when faced with the latest rationale for refusing to be vaccinated or wear a mask, is to dismiss the proponent of the theory as “anti-science,” assuming that they are willfully resistant to scientific knowledge as a matter of principle and believing that they would come to a more rational conclusion if only they would drop their resistance to science and listen to “the facts.”
Resistance to scientific consensus
An article recently published in Science Advances, however, suggests that the situation is not so simple. Proponents of such objectively nutty theories as the snake-venom origin of COVID do not oppose science per se but merely a scientific consensus with which they do not agree on an issue that they feel strongly about. Indeed, such people frequently enlist “science” in support of their position (as the man in the barbershop did with the “well-known chiropractor”), so confident in their understanding of a complex scientific issue that they dismiss the views of the experts as inferior to their own.
The studies described in the article suggest, in fact, that such confidence—and the dismissal of “expert” opinion that results from it—is directly related to the degree of one’s opposition to the scientific consensus regarding the issue. At the same time, the degree of actual understanding of a controversial issue over which there is substantial scientific consensus decreases as the opposition and subjective understanding increase. In other words, the more vehemently someone opposes the consensus on an issue such as COVID, the better they believe they understand it, but the less they actually know about it.
Anti-consensus views, subjective knowledge, and objective knowledge
In a series of five studies, the research team explored “the interrelationships between opposition to expert consensus on controversial scientific issues, how much people actually know about these issues, and how much they think they know.” In the first two studies, participants were randomly assigned to one of seven scientific issues over which there is substantial consensus among scientists (genetically modified foods, climate change, vaccination, human evolution, the Big Bang theory, homeopathic medicine, and nuclear energy), and then completed an instrument designed to measure their opposition to the scientific consensus for the issue they had been assigned. (Participants who indicated complete agreement with the consensus were funneled into another unrelated study.) The remaining participants, who showed differing degrees of opposition to the consensus, were asked how well they understood their assigned issue (subjective knowledge) and then presented with 34 general and issue-specific science questions to measure their objective knowledge. The results of the two studies revealed that participants who expressed the strongest opposition to the consensus had the highest confidence in their understanding of the issues but scored the lowest in the test of their actual objective knowledge.
A third study was identical to the first two, with the exception that participants were given an opportunity to bet on their ability to score above average on the objective knowledge questions and earn a bonus payment—to put their money where their mouth was, as it were. The purpose of this alteration was to remove ambiguity in the participants’ interpretation of the measure of subjective knowledge (if, for example, they claimed to understand an issue but acknowledged that their view was at odds with that of the scientific community). In line with the results of the first two studies, those participants who most strongly opposed the consensus were the most likely to bet on their ability to score above average on the objective test but the least likely to win that bet.
Anti-consensus views on COVID
Two more studies focused on COVID-19, with the fourth exploring attitudes toward vaccines and the fifth exploring attitudes toward mitigation policies and preventative behaviors. In study four (which was actually conducted in 2020, before a vaccine was available), participants described their understanding of how a COVID vaccine would work (subjective knowledge), reported their willingness to receive a vaccine once it became available, and answered a battery of general science and issue-specific true-false questions (objective knowledge). The results were the same as in the first three studies, with those participants with the highest resistance to taking a vaccine measuring highest in subjective knowledge and lowest in objective knowledge.
Study five examined attitudes toward COVID mitigation policies, such as masking and social distancing, measuring both participants’ support for the policies and their compliance with recommended preventative behaviors. Just as in the previous four studies, opposition to scientific consensus (represented by mitigation policies and recommended preventative behaviors) was positively related to subjective knowledge on the issue and negatively related to objective knowledge. A positive relationship between opposition and subjective knowledge was also indicated by a follow-up question on how much the participants thought scientists know about COVID. Predictably, participants who rated their own knowledge about COVID as higher than that of scientists showed greater opposition to mitigation policies and non-compliance with preventative behaviors than those who rated scientists’ knowledge as greater than their own.
Education alone can't overcome the knowledge gap
All five studies described in the article showed that the people who disagree most with scientific consensus believe they know more about the issues under consideration, but actually know less. The results call into question the effectiveness of “fact-based educational interventions” in overcoming resistance to public safety measures (such as those aimed at preventing the spread of COVID) that face strong resistance in spite of the scientific consensus supporting them. If the people who most strongly oppose such measures are convinced that they already know more than the “experts,” further explanations from these same experts are likely to fall on deaf ears.
A more effective strategy than trying to educate those who see no need for more education, the researchers speculate, might be to change such people’s perceptions of how much they actually know about an issue. Previous studies have shown that getting people to try to explain the mechanisms underlying such complex scientific phenomena as COVID can reduce their confidence in how well they understand the issue and increase their deference to the experts, potentially increasing their openness to views that are more in line with the scientific consensus.
Whatever strategies policymakers might attempt to persuade holdouts to public safety measures such as vaccination and masking to go along with expert opinion for the common good, the five studies presented here make it clear that education alone is insufficient to overcome such opposition. While raising public awareness of COVID and other issues that pose a threat to society at large is a perfectly logical objective, simply presenting people with “the facts” will never persuade those who most need to be persuaded, since their very opposition convinces them that their knowledge is superior to that of the people trying to persuade them.
Light, Nicholas, et al. “Knowledge Overconfidence Is Associated with Anti-Consensus Views on Controversial Scientific Issues.” Science Advances, vol. 8, no. 29, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abo0038.