By JOHN RICHARD SCHROCK
“Why are people anti-science, and what can we do about it?” was just published July 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Aviva Philipp-Muller at Simon Fraser University along with two colleagues. Because refusing vaccination against COVID-19 “...is costing lives now and will continue to do so in the future,” they summarize a large body of research in psychology and communication in order to determine why there is so much dissent in the Western world.
To discern why anti-science sources are effective and scientists are not successful, they bring together over a hundred studies that have addressed various factors, many related to the easy spread of misinformation by social media. They identify four “principles driving anti-science attitudes.”
The first problem arises when scientists are not perceived as experts or lack credibility and are therefore ignored. They break that into the recipient looking for expertise, honesty and objectivity in the scientist. Some will dismiss scientists for being elitist. Others note that in the past scientists have lied for the tobacco or auto industries. Some see scientists as atheists. And medical scientists can be seen as dishonest agents for pharmaceutical companies.
The second factor arises when the listener is a member of a group that holds anti-science attitudes. This includes both political and religious groups. This polarization can result in immediate rejection of any message from the outgroup without any consideration of the content of the message itself. These groups are now much more easily held together with social media.
The third problem is when the scientific message itself is rejected based on what people already believe is true. The authors describe “cognitive dissonance, which arises when a person is exposed to information that conflicts with their existing beliefs, attitudes or behaviors.” This leads to rejecting the science or making it trivial, etc. In addition, corrections provided by media often reinforce their disbelief.
The final problem they describe is the message not matching how the recipient sees the world. This would include a broader view of common sense being more valuable than intellectual book learning. They note viewers of CNN or Fox News will automatically trust their source and disparage the opposition without thinking the issue through.
Unfortunately, this report considers “increasing a population’s general scientific literacy” to be “ineffective.” Instead, they promote “scientific reasoning skills” as if there is a method to determine accuracy in science that is separate from the science knowledge itself. But the major problem in these last two years has been the ability to communicate the basic human anatomy and physiology involved, the nature of viruses, and the way the immune system works.
The United States ranks near the bottom of all developed countries in science literacy, is top in number of deaths, and it is very close to the top in deaths per 100,000. And science literacy is a very good predictor of the number of deaths per 100,000 from COVID-19, as can be accessed online at the Johns Hopkins, statista, and ourworldindata websites. German citizens receive comprehensive science education in public school to the extent they can self-refer themselves to a medical specialist. While our covid death rate is 3,171 per million, Germany’s is only 1,682.
And death rates are far lower in South Korea, Japan, China, Singapore, etc. due to a different culture where citizens take far more responsibility for protecting the health of everyone around them—they have worn face masks for decades. They are likewise far more willing to use advanced smartphone technology to monitor exposure for rapid contact tracing.
These authors also take aim at technical jargon. Yet, the language of science is not jargon but necessarily specific and accurate terms that only appear to be jargon to the science illiterate. If you do not understand the concept of diffusion, you will not understand why we wear a face mask to protect others more than ourselves. Unfortunately, it has taken the U.S. many decades to sink to our low level of average science literacy, and would take a long time for future generations to gain it back.
Meanwhile, the marketing psychology in this P.N.A.S. report will do little to solve our problem.
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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities during 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.