Inoculating against science denial

April 27, 2015 by John Cook, The Conversation
Exposing people to weak forms of anti-science arguments can help them respond when they are hit by the real thing. Credit: NIAID/Flickr, CC BY

Science denial has real, societal consequences. Denial of the link between HIV and AIDS led to more than 330,000 premature deaths in South Africa. Denial of the link between smoking and cancer has caused millions of premature deaths. Thanks to vaccination denial, preventable diseases are making a comeback.

Denial is not something we can ignore or, well, deny. So what does scientific research say is the most effective response? Common wisdom says that communicating more science should be the solution. But a growing body of evidence indicates that this approach can actually backfire, reinforcing people's prior beliefs.

When you present evidence that threatens a person's worldview, it can actually strengthen their beliefs. This is called the "worldview backfire effect". One of the first scientific experiments that observed this effect dates back to 1975.

A psychologist from the University of Kansas presented evidence to teenage Christians that Jesus Christ did not come back from the dead. Now, the evidence wasn't genuine; it was created for the experiment to see how the participants would react.

What happened was their faith actually strengthened in response to evidence challenging their faith. This type of reaction happens across a range of issues. When US Republicans are given evidence of no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they believe more strongly that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When you debunk the myth linking vaccination to autism, anti-vaxxers respond by opposing vaccination more strongly.

In my own research, when I've informed strong political conservatives that there's a scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming, they become less accepting that humans are causing climate change.

Brute force meets resistance

Ironically, the practice of throwing more science at science denial ignores the into denial. You can't adequately address this issue without considering the root cause: personal beliefs and ideology driving the rejection of scientific evidence. Attempts at science communication that ignore the potent influence effect of worldview can be futile or even counterproductive.

How then should scientists respond to science denial? The answer lies in a branch of psychology dating back to the 1960s known as "inoculation theory". Inoculation is an idea that changed history: stop a virus from spreading by exposing people to a weak form of the virus. This simple concept has saved millions of lives.

Credit: Skeptical Science

In the psychological domain, inoculation theory applies the concept of inoculation to knowledge. When we teach science, we typically restrict ourselves to just explaining the science. This is like giving people vitamins. We're providing the information required for a healthier understanding. But vitamins don't necessarily grant immunity against a virus.

There is a similar dynamic with misinformation. You might have a healthy understanding of the science. But if you encounter a myth that distorts the science, you're confronted with a conflict between the science and the myth. If you don't understand the technique used to distort the science, you have no way to resolve that conflict.

Half a century of research into inoculation theory has found that the way to neutralise misinformation is to expose people to a weak form of the misinformation. The way to achieve this is to explain the fallacy employed by the myth. Once people understand the techniques used to distort the science, they can reconcile the myth with the fact.

There is perhaps no more apt way to demonstrate inoculation theory than to address a myth about vaccination. A persistent myth about vaccination is that it causes autism.

This myth originated from a Lancet study which was subsequently shown to be fraudulent and was retracted by the journal. Nevertheless, the myth persists simply due to the persuasive fact that some children have developed autism around the same time they were vaccinated.

This uses the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, Latin for "after this, therefore because of this". This is a fallacy because correlation does not imply causation. Just because one event happens around the same time as another event doesn't imply that one causes the other.

The only way to demonstrate causation is through statistically rigorous . Many studies have investigated this issue and shown conclusively that there is no link between vaccination and autism.

Inoculating minds

The response to science denial is not just more science. We stop science denial by exposing people to a weak form of science denial. We need to inoculate minds against misinformation.

The practical application of inoculation theory is already happening in classrooms, with educators adopting the teaching approach of misconception-based learning (also known as agnotology-based learning or refutational teaching).

This involves teaching science by debunking misconceptions about the science. This approach results in significantly higher learning gains than customary lectures that simply teach the science.

While this is currently happening in a few classrooms, Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) offer the opportunity to scale up this teaching approach to reach potentially hundreds of thousands of students. At the University of Queensland, we're launching a MOOC that makes sense of climate science denial.

Our approach draws upon inoculation theory, educational research into misconception-based learning and the cognitive psychology of debunking. We explain the psychological research into why and how people deny climate science.

Having laid the framework, we examine the fallacies behind the most common climate myths. Our goal is for students to learn how to identify the techniques used to distort and feel confident responding to misinformation.

A typical response of scientists to science denial is to teach more science. But that only provides half of what's needed. Scientific research has offered us a solution: build resistance to science denial by exposing people to a weak form of denial.

Explore further: Throwing science at anti-vaxxers just makes them more hardline

Related Stories

Right, left, wrong: People reject science because ...

October 3, 2013

You'd be forgiven for thinking science is under attack. Climate science has been challenged by deniers and sceptics, vaccination rates are falling thanks to anti-vaccination movements, and GM crops are pillaged by anti-GM ...

The ironclad logic of conspiracy theories and how to break it

October 6, 2014

As the United Nations warns of the dire consequences of global warming, the commitment of the current Australian government to the reality of climate change remains unclear, with a history of disturbingly uninformed commentary ...

Recommended for you

Study: Social media sways exercise motivation

January 17, 2019

It's January – a time when students are looking for that extra bit of oomph. For some, time spent on social media might provide the necessary inspiration to get up and exercising – but that time can come with consequences, ...

16 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) Apr 27, 2015
When you present evidence that threatens a person's worldview, it can actually strengthen their beliefs.

There may be a way to overcome this kind of bone-headedness (or righteousness, conservatism...or whatever you want to call it) :

_Before_ conducting a study get parties that might have their beliefs affected by the outcome to stipulate what kind of evidence they would accept - and what kind of evidence they would accept as a 'positive' outcome (i.e. one that reinforces their beliefs)

This will quickly show up people who will unfairly bias expected outcomes in favor of their own beliefs (setting very high bars for a negative outcome vs. very low bars for a positive one). Even they must admit to the unfairness of their own criteria if read back to them.

If they then agree to unbiased/fair criteria the experiment can commence. In the end they will have to abide by the outcome or carry the label 'hypocrit' by their _own_ criteria
HannesAlfven
2.5 / 5 (8) Apr 27, 2015
It's interesting that articles like this never make any mention of the fairly recent Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who gives talks in places like Yale on how academics are just as prone to (non-rational) associative coherence as laypeople.

A person reading these articles would have no idea that such a man or claim exists. But, such an approach can backfire on academia, because in the corporate world, Kahneman's work is highly regarded and widely disseminated.

There will surely be long-term implications to this refusal in academic circles to talk about recent discoveries about how ALL people think.
gkam
1 / 5 (2) Apr 27, 2015
Our Deniers spring from political prejudice. It is very hard to overcome that.

Then, we have Wiki-warriors, for whom words have their own meaning.
agref
1 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2015
Steelmanning
julianpenrod
1.8 / 5 (10) Apr 27, 2015
It's being reported that the government is reducing the once supposedly "beneficial" fluoride from tap water.
"Experts" declaring that children should be exposed to allergens later rather than earlier, to build tolerance, caused the rate of peanut allergy to jump 250 percent.
"scientists" who mocked people who felt they were hearing about peanut allergies more than they used to now are admitting they did, indeed, increase 250 percent.
"Experts" declared that eggs were dangerous to eat, even though they contain all the nutrients necessary to make a healthy chick, which is one thousandth the mass of a human.
The AMA itself, before 1850, threatened to remove the license of any physician who washed his hands.
Every article about "scientific" "discoveries" always says "is", "will" or "does", and not "may" or "can".
"Science" is a lie.
sdrfz
1 / 5 (7) Apr 27, 2015

Karl Popper showed that the premises in this article are total bunk. You can never prove scientific theories. Science is based on Post hoc ergo propter hoc, exactly the fallacy mentioned in this article.
animah
4.6 / 5 (11) Apr 27, 2015
"Science" is a lie

You seem to want science to provide absolute truths. That's not what it's for.

Science is just a method.

It's a method for studying the same things over and over again, each time in greater detail to discover new things, and using that new knowledge to illuminate other things.

New information often shows that things are actually not what we thought we knew. That's a Good Thing. It's the very definition of progress.

The consequence is skepticism of all absolute truths. I have no problem with that. What is it that I have within me that eludes you so entirely?
Nik_2213
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 27, 2015
"Even they must admit to the unfairness of their own criteria if read back to them."

IMHO, that's a tad peroptimistic. You're dealing with folk who've 'nailed their colours to the mast'.

(And, yes, it also happens in Science when a paradigm shift leaves the less nimble-witted stranded.)

eg: after getting into an argument on AGW, I asked if a bunch of glaciers sloughing from Greenland would convince. No. A lot of glaciers ? No. Half the miles-thick ice-cap ? No. All of it ?? No, it is natural consequence of the on-going post-glacial thaw. That it should have gone into overdrive again after five or six millennia near-dormancy is simply beyond our ken ...

At that point, I made a diplomatic exit rather than do violence...
cjn
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 28, 2015
The article misses the biggest problem with science "denial": The lack of basic understanding of science, or the specific science. This is irrespective of topic or "side".
sdrfz
2 / 5 (4) Apr 28, 2015
You seem to want science to provide absolute truths. That's not what it's for.


But this article claims in various places that science is the absolute truth. For example it says:

"The only way to demonstrate causation is through statistically rigorous scientific research."

No science experiment has ever demonstrated causation in this manner. You cannot demonstrate causation in an objective sense by a series of observations, because the observations are inherently subjective. Those observations were made at specific times and places.

antigoracle
3 / 5 (4) Apr 28, 2015
The only thing more amusing than what the AGW Cult believe is climate "science", is their feeble attempts to justify those beliefs by associating them with true science.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2015
The article misses the biggest problem with science "denial": The lack of basic understanding of science, or the specific science. This is irrespective of topic or "side".

What 'science' discipline?
Physics is fairly straightforward until one gets into cosomology and particle physics. Then the weasel words come out.
Chemistry to is fairly straightforward.
Weasel words really come in climate science and biology. The reason is quite clear, one is dealing with emergent, chaotic systems difficult to conduct traditional science experiments upon.
If one accepts evolution, then one must accept that each individual organism, even of the same species, is unique.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Apr 28, 2015
But this article claims in various places that science is the absolute truth. For example it says:

"The only way to demonstrate causation is through statistically rigorous scientific research."

What is your problem with that? If you reject that then you can never show causation (and in effect then you can never say or do anything that will bear any kind of information towardsanyone or anything)

Different sciences lay down different hurdles for defining causation (e.g. in medical sciences 1 in 20 error probability is considered sufficient, in physics it's often an error probability of less han 1 in a million)

When you ask people what they consider sufficient statistical evidence to claim causation in real life situation you will find that they are in allmost all cases MUCH lower. But somehow wehn they are confronted with the stringent tests of science they exclaim "not convincing" (bit hypocritical, that, wouldn't you say?)
ryggesogn2
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2015
What is your problem with that?


When science is wrong and when science is used to push 100% certainty.
When something is wrong 50% of the time, one can understand and deal with that more effectively.
When something is wrong .0001% of the time, and being wrong is catastrophic, the fundamental understanding deserves questioning.
Flying is safer than driving, yet every air accident is thoroughly investigated, but not every auto accident.
animah
5 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2015
But this article claims in various places that science is the absolute truth (...) statistically rigorous

Causation backed by statistical data means +by definition+ causation most of the time -or more accurately, causation to whatever degree the statistical correlation is found to be. No more, no less.

It is important for you to remind any absolutist you may meet of this fact.

But by the same token when the consensus-accepted data shows a peer-reviewed positive correlation, you need to accept it as the best guess until better data comes in and a new consensus forms.

That's a far cry from what Julian Penrod calls "science lies".

For example you have a one in two chance of getting lung cancer if you smoke. That's a 50% uncertainty rate. You might even be willing to take that chance and in the free world that's perfectly fine. But that's most definitely not a reason to be against anti-smoking campaigns.
barakn
4.2 / 5 (5) Apr 28, 2015
It's being reported that the government is reducing the once supposedly "beneficial" fluoride from tap water. -julianpendorc
...because the amount of fluoride in other sources has increased. They're trying to keep fluoride levels at a beneficial constant. The big, scary side-effect of too much fluoride? Tooth stains. Don't you have some chemtrails to chase? Go now.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.