Morality, stereotypes, and scientists—the anatomy of science denial

Morality, stereotypes, and scientists—the anatomy of science denial
Figure 1. The public was asked to rate the preferences of four different groups. The fourth item was included to account for halo effects. Credit: Rutjens and Heine, CCBY via PLOS ONE

Though 87% of scientists believe that human activity causes climate change, only half of the general population shares this view, according to a well-known Pew Research Center report. On the issue of GMO food safety, there is a staggering 51% difference of opinion between AAAS scientists and the public.

These numbers indicate communication between and the public has broken down, but why? Research from Fiske and Dupree suggests that the general public respects scientists, but does not trust them. Todd Pittinsky also suggests that while scientists trust and understand the validity of the scientific method, the public does not. PLOS Blogs has covered the issue of public perceptions of scientific issues, ranging from climate change and vaccines, and GMOs. But there is some good news; according to Lewandowsky et al., people tend to reject science as a whole, not just particularly contentious topics. So instead of trying to tackle each individual topic, perhaps we only need to inspire trust in scientists and the scientific process, and the rest will fall into line from there.

A Bit About Morality

Before we can talk about engendering trust in science, we first need to address how people perceive others in general. Morality often acts as the guiding rubric by which people judge the actions and motivations of their peers. A useful model for morality is moral foundations theory, which proposes that values come from five core principles, called foundations. These five foundations can be grouped into two categories: individualizing foundations and binding foundations. Individualizing foundations center on protecting the individual rights of others. Binding foundations center on roles and duties to foster harmony and cohesion in society.

A recent study in PLOS ONE surveyed Amazon Mechanical Turk users to gain insight into the users' perceptions of scientists. Surveyed individuals responded that they thought scientists were more likely than laypeople to act against the binding foundations, but not more likely to act against the individualizing foundations. As seen in Figure 1, Turk users also thought that scientists prioritize knowledge and curiosity over morality. The authors conclude that people view scientists as amoral (lacking morals), rather than immoral (willfully violating morals).

Morality, stereotypes, and scientists—the anatomy of science denial
Figure 2. The public was asked to rate the ability and ethics of hypothetical researcher X after publishing a study, as well as the validity (truth) of the results. The authors then examined how different replication scenarios altered the perception of researcher X. Credit: Figure from Ebersole et al., CCBY via PLOS Biology

A Bit About Stereotypes

Individuals tend to group others based on their perceived morality, often employing stereotypes to describe individuals or groups of people beliveved to have different morals or values. According to Fiske et al., stereotypes are well described using two dimensions: warmth and competence. Warmth (or lack of it) refers to the perceived positive/negative intent of another person, while competence refers to the other person's capacity to achieve their intent. Using this terminology, the ingroup, or the group that you belong to, is both warm and competent, and thus trustworthy. Stereotypes with high perceived competence and low perceived warmth, including stereotypically wealthy individuals, are often not trusted because perceived intent is either unknown or negative. Similarly, scientists have unclear intent due to their perceived amorality, and they are not trusted.

A second study in PLOS Biology examined how the public judges the competency of scientists. The authors presented hypothetical scenarios involving a study by researcher X and subsequent replication attempts, to participants recruited through SoapBox Sample. One interesting conclusion is that the validity of a study's results is not entirely correlated with beliefs about the researcher's ability and ethics. What does have a greater impact on perceptions of the ability and ethics of research X is how gracefully researcher X responds to replication attempts by researcher Y. In rows two and four of Figure 2, "truth" decreases because the replication failed, but "ability" and "ethics" increases because researcher X responds gracefully. In contrast, all three qualities decrease in rows three and seven because replication attempts failed and researcher X responded ungracefully. Clearly, the public believes that the way a scientist responds to replication is an important factor in determining a scientist's competence.

Creating Trust

From these two studies, we can conclude that the public perceives scientists as competent, but not warm. These perceptions provide clear reasons why scientists are not trusted. I believe that in order to incur more trust from the public, scientists must cultivate more warmth from the public.

I propose two ways to achieve this goal. First scientists need to make their intentions clear. Social psychologist Todd Pittinsky, mentioned in the introduction, has some terrific ideas on how to clarify intentions. One strategy is open access to data and methods, which is readily achieved through open access publishing. Scientists also need to treat misconduct by other scientists more seriously so that people don't, for example, deem that all vaccine science is fraud due to one case of misconduct. Finally, we need to treat science denial without disdain and acknowledge uncertainty properly when describing scientific results.

Second, scientists need to move into the ingroup sphere by imitating those already in the ingroup. Kahan et al. point out that an individual's established ideology greatly influences how they process new information. I would suggest scientists frame their findings in a way that fits with the audience's ideology, thus promoting "warmth". For example, the Pew report that reveals 37% of the public thinks that GMOs are not safe, which violates the individual foundations. Highlighting how certain crops can be genetically engineered for health (e.g. rice that is genetically engineered to produce beta carotene) shows how GMOs can be compatible with individual foundations. Behaving like an ingroup can then move scientists into the ingroup sphere.

Battling misinformation is definitely an uphill climb, but it is a climb scientists must endeavor to make. Climate change denial and the anti-vaccination movement threatens the future of scientific progress, and while the danger cannot be ignored, we should not belittle non-scientific ideas. Scientists can build goodwill through increased transparency and communicating the significance of their findings to the public. By taking other worldviews into account, we can find common ground and create open dialogue and perhaps find solutions to benefit everyone.

Explore further

Scientists seen as competent but not trusted by Americans

More information: Ebersole CR, Axt JR, Nosek BA (2016) Scientists' Reputations Are Based on Getting It Right, Not Being Right. PLOS Biol 14(5): e1002460. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002460

Fiske ST, Cuddy AJ, Glick P, Xu J (2002) A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 82(6): 878-902.

Fiske ST, Dupree C (2014) Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 111: 13593-13597.

Graham J, Haidt J, Nosek BA (2009) Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 96(5): 1029-1046.

Haidt J, Graham J (2007) When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Soc. Justice. Res. 20(1): 98-116.

Kahan DM, Jenkins-Smith H, Braman D (2010) Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus. J Risk Res. 14: 147-174.

Lewandowsky S, Oberauer K, Gignac GE NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science. Psychol. Sci. 24(5): 622-633.

Pew Research Center, January 29, 2015, Public and Scientists' Views on Science and Society.

Pittinsky TL (2015) America's crisis of faith in science. Science 348: 511-512.

Rutjens BT, Heine SJ (2016) The Immoral Landscape? Scientists Are Associated with Violations of Morality. PLOS ONE 11(4): e0152798. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152798.

Tversky A, Kahneman D (1983) Extensional versus intuitive reasoning: The conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychol. Rev. 90(4): 293-315.

Journal information: PLoS ONE , PLoS Biology , Science

This story is republished courtesy of PLOS Blogs:

Citation: Morality, stereotypes, and scientists—the anatomy of science denial (2016, June 6) retrieved 18 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jun 06, 2016
Only in America.

Jun 06, 2016
It's a moral decision to blindingly accept what scientists tell us, makes it a much stronger argument to rely on morality.

Jun 07, 2016
Climate change denial...threatens the future of scientific progress

If you're really concerned about communicating better, drop the "climate change denial" and "climate change denier" monikers. It is an emotionally-charged, condescending and inaccurate description of people who legitimately question the conclusions of a minority (not 87%) of "scientists" who think humans are the primary cause of climate change. "Skeptic" is the accurate description.

"Denier" is purposely used by alarmists to brand skeptics as being willfully ignorant in the same way as Holocaust deniers. Weak-minded people with weak arguments often resort to name-calling; and the punier they are the quicker they resort to the big guns in name-calling: slandering their opponents as Nazis and fascists. That's the meaning behind "climate change denier."

And yes, "alarmist" is an accurate description because anyone who takes the time to review the science will find nothing alarming about climate change.

Jun 07, 2016
Once again the cabal of alarmists who can't make a legitimate scientific argument that human activity is the major cause of climate change are resorting to using flawed surveys to support their argumentum ad populum fallacy. 87% of scientists can't all be wrong, can they? The survey that makes that claim can be, and it is.

Though 87% of scientists believe that human activity causes climate change, only half of the general population shares this view, according to a well-known Pew Research Center report.

Pew sent a survey to members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Of the 19,984 member surveyed, 3,748 (19%) responded. Of those, only 270 (7%) work in "earth sciences". The largest group (48%) are in bio/medical sciences. What do they know about "climate change"? Only what they've heard from others. Most of them have never taken the time to look at the data themselves.

Pew typically does good polling, but not this time.

Jun 07, 2016
Fiske's research about communication is interesting and compelling. Climate science is an excellent subject to test because so many climate scientists have made wildly exaggerated claims to capture people's attention. The Climategate emails revealed some of the deceptions knowingly perpetrated by the core alarmist cabal. No wonder the "general population" is skeptical of their claims.

Sea levels? A modest 1.5 mm per year (6 inches per 100 years), much the same as it's been for the last 145 years. (See lower graph from tide gauge data.)

Warming? After a 17-year hiatus with no warming, the 2015 El Niño briefly spiked temperatures above the previous warm year, 1998. Temperatures are rapidly dropping again, much like the 1998 El Niño.

For reference, sea levels were 16 feet higher 125,000 years ago during the previous interglacial cycle.


Jun 12, 2016
Among other things, the discredited "body mass index", the lunatic "food pyramid", faulty advice on instilling immunity to allergens. Then, each time an idea is proved a lie, the "scientists" praise themselves for being willing to admit a flaw, when they couldn't hide it any longer, saying "science" proceeds by discarding mistaken claims. Until then, they won't admit, they damage lives by insisting the flawed claim is absolute truth! Even here, the admit the public mistrusts "scientists", then "concludes" they mistrust the philosophy of scientific derivation. That, also, is a lie. They trust the philosophy, they just know all "scientists" are shills for big money, saying what they need to get more grants or advance crooked corporations or political movements.

Jun 12, 2016
No meaningful response yet to this article - only responses from people on my ignore list, and one who made that list today. This has common roots with the previous study in which the capacity for self delusion was found to have survival benefit for humans. The part of us that mistrust logic, intellect and scientific processes is our delusionary part. Intellectually we can understand, but at the gut level many of us revert to our delusions.

Jun 12, 2016
according to Lewandowsky et al

The biggest FRAUD in science, that's if you can call tripe, science.

Jun 12, 2016
It's a poor decision to accept any of what religion tells us.

Jun 12, 2016
It's a poor decision to accept any of what religion tells us
Thats because religions are full of psychopaths who enjoy the attention of large groups of adoring fans (or like to imagine it) and know that most of what they are selling cannot be meaningfully disproved because their fans want what they are selling so much.

What are you selling george? And who do you imagine is buying it?

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