Why Don’t Some People Believe In Science?

Many people claim their “thing” is under assault by culture. But, yo, this might actually be true for science… Hey friends who love science (or other people who hate it), my name is Trace Dominguez, and this is DNews, a science show. Just FYI. Cool. Yes, I know science isn’t literally under attack. Not really. I mean, earlier this year, the former Secretary of Justice of the UK did say, [quote] “people in this country have had enough of experts.” And at the time of this video, the possible head of the EPA here in the US has called climate change policy one of “many pretexts for expanding government,” and called global warming “phony” and “not based in science…” Plus, the Vice President-Elect called climate change a “myth” and “a theory” and the President-Elect said it’s not caused by humans. Though it might be a “hoax” perpetrated by China… where humans live, so someone will have to figure out how that vogues. Maybe if we could call in some extra experts, I’m sure the UK has some.

Meanwhile, according to multiple reviews of the scientific literature, 97 percent of publishing scientists who study it say climate change/global warming is real, it’s happening now, and we need to act. The sea levels are rising and the sixteen warmest years since 1880 have all been in the 18 years since 1998, with most of the temperature increasing since 1970. The science is settled. There’s a lot of evidence. And yet, people don’t believe it. We sitting are in a metaphorical car sinking in a river and debating how we got off the road and whether cars float! It doesn’t matter! We need to do something! Why don’t people believe evidence? A 2015 study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science explores that exact question! But before we look at that study, let’s go a bit more broadly… a study in Public Opinion Quarterly, points out politicizing something like nuclear power at all “renders arguments about the environmental benefits… invalid.” Even if there is a consensus! Basically, when something is politicized, we react emotionally, and stick to status-quo… because change is scary.

So, knowing that, let’s go back to this new study about why we hate evidence so much. Researchers created a model of human cognition to see why people don’t believe evidence, even when it’s right in front of them. They believe essentially, we have a problem separating our emotion from decisions. Political opinions and ideologies are part of those emotions. Let’s say I’m asking you about global warming… according to their model and other research, within 200 milliseconds you’d feel your “hot cognition,” basically prejudgement of the topic! You’ve already evaluated your feelings on this topic and thus have an opinion. And that hot cognition and your emotions are then tainting how you feel about the evidence. For example, if you’ve been told humans cause climate change and you believe that climate change equals regulation, and that regulation is bad, then because of hot cognition, climate change equals bad.

It only takes milliseconds for this to occur — and it’s one of the first steps in forming an opinion… but it’s super important. Because every memory, every thought and everything after this can be tainted by the hot cognition opinion. The psychologists who published this paper, think the reason you don’t believe the evidence, is because we prejudge everything with our emotions. And it’s not just politics that can cause it… sad music, attraction to the person speaking, even the weather can affect your true feelings on… well, everything. But that’s just one model of many. Emotions do affect everything we do, but we can fight the natural tendency to react emotionally to evidence by THINKING. The problem is that takes energy and effort. Humans have a natural tendency, according to early 20th century social psychologist Kurt Lewin, to resist change — thinking is hard. He says we like the status-quo (and our inherent opinion) because we value the groups we belong to now, change means inviting discomfort into our social reality. It’s so much easier to say, I don’t believe you, you’re challenging my status quo, my default, my social reality, and even though I’ve never read anything on what you’re talking about — I feel that it’s bad, and will fight to not expend energy on this.

The moral of this story, as I see it, based on this research, is people don’t believe in science because it requires we think, evaluate, and re-evaluate. Which is hard. At times science does feel unnatural, it asks us to question, be skeptical, and to debate as objectively as possible — all things we don’t naturally do well. It’s a skill we can learn, if cultivated, and encouraged. So, knowing this, if you want someone to believe your evidence, don’t appeal to their emotions, appeal to their curiosity. Avoid presenting evidence that will trigger joy, anger, fear, or disgust — instead, trigger their thinking caps, their cognition… And if I haven’t convinced you of that, maybe re-watch this video. If you like thinking about how we think about things, check out this video on our SeekerDaily sister show about an ancient Greek dude who says we all know nothing, even if we think we know stuff.

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