It’s not what you know, it’s what you think you know

image: Researchers are investigating why some people have strong attitudes toward science while others are more neutral.
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Credit: Matthew Schwartz, Unsplash (CC0, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Why do people have very different attitudes toward well-evidenced science? For many years, researchers have focused on what people know about science, believing that “to know science is to love it.” But so do people who think they know science In fact know science? A new study published on January 24.y In Open Access Journal Biology PLUS Written by Christina Fonseca of the UK Genetics Society; Lawrence Hirst of the Milner Center for Evolution at the University of Bath, UK; and colleagues, that people with strong attitudes tend to believe they understand the science, while neutrals are less confident. Overall, the study revealed that people who have strong negative attitudes toward science tend to be overconfident about their level of understanding.

Whether it is about vaccines, climate change, or genetically modified foods, socially important science can stir up powerful and conflicting attitudes. Understanding how science is communicated requires understanding why people might take such very different positions on the same basic science. The new study surveyed more than 2,000 adults in the UK, asking them about their attitudes toward science and their belief in their own understanding. Some previous analyzes have found that individuals who are negative about science tend to have relatively low knowledge of textbooks but strong self-belief in their own understanding. With this insight as a foundation, the team set out to ask whether a strong belief in oneself underpins all strong positions.

The team focused on genetics and asked attitudinal questions, such as: “A lot of claims about the benefits of modern genetics are greatly exaggerated.” People can say how much they agree or disagree with such a statement. They also asked questions about how well they thought they understood such a science, including: “When you hear the term DNA, how do you rate your understanding of what that term means.” All subjects were scored from zero (they know they don’t understand) to one (they are confident they understand). The team discovered that those in extreme positions—whether strongly supportive or vehemently anti-science—have very high confidence in their own understanding, while those who answer neutral do not.

Psychologically speaking, the team suggests this makes sense: To have a strong opinion, you need to believe strongly in the correctness of your understanding of basic facts. The current team could replicate previous findings that found that those who are more negative also tend not to have high textbook literacy. By contrast, those who are accepting of science believe they understand it and score well on textbook questions (true/false).

When it was believed that what mattered most to scientific literacy was scientific knowledge, science communication focused on conveying information from scientists to the public. However, this approach may not be successful, and in some cases it can backfire. The current work suggests that working to address discrepancies between what people know and what they think they know might be a better strategy.

Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, Chair of the Genetics Society and co-author of the study comments, “Confronting the negative attitudes towards science held by some people likely involves dismantling what they think they know about science and replacing it with a more nuanced understanding. This is very difficult.”

Hirst concludes, “Why do some people have strong attitudes toward science while others are more neutral? We find that strong attitudes, both for and against, are based on strong self-confidence in knowledge of science.”

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In your coverage, please use this URL to provide access to freely available paper in Biology PLUS: http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3001915

the quote: Fonseca C, Pettitt J, Woollard A, Rutherford A, Bickmore W, Ferguson-Smith A et al. (2023) People with the most extreme attitudes toward science have confidence in their understanding of science, even if it is not justified. PLoS Biol 21 (1): e3001915. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001915

author countries: United Kingdom, Germany

Funding: The work was enabled with funding from the Genetics Society to the Chair of the Public Participation (AW) Committee. The grant number has not been specified. Funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, publication decision, or manuscript preparation.


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