Why do people have very different attitudes towards well-founded science? For years, researchers focused on what people know about science, assuming that “to know science is to love it”. But do people who think they know science actually know science? A new study published Jan. 24 in the open access journal PLOS Biology by Cristina Fonseca of the Genetics Society, UK; Laurence Hurst of the Milner Center for Evolution, University of Bath, UK; and colleagues, found that people with strong attitudes tend to believe they understand science, while neutrals are less confident. Overall, the research revealed that people with strongly negative attitudes towards science tend to be overconfident about their level of knowledge.

Whether it’s vaccines, climate change or genetically modified food, socially important science can evoke strong and opposing attitudes. Understanding how to communicate science requires understanding why people can have such extremely different attitudes towards the same underlying science. The new study conducted a survey of more than 2,000 British adults, asking them both about their attitudes towards science and their beliefs in their own understanding. A few previous analyzes showed that individuals who are negative towards science tend to have relatively low textbook knowledge but strong confidence in their understanding. With this insight as a foundation, the team tried to ask whether strong self-esteem underlies all strong attitudes.

The team focused on genetic science and asked attitude questions, such as: “Many claims about the benefits of modern genetic science are vastly exaggerated.” People could indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with such a statement. They also asked questions about how much they think they understand about such science, including: “When you hear the term DNA, how would you rate your understanding of what the term means?” All individuals were scored from zero (they know they don’t understand) to one (they are confident they understand). The team found that those with the extreme attitudes – both strongly supportive and strongly anti-science – have very high confidence in their own understanding, while those who answer neutrally do not.

Psychologically, the team suggests, this makes sense: to have a strong opinion, you must have strong beliefs in the correctness of your understanding of the basic facts. The current team could replicate the previous results, finding that those who are most negative also tend not to have high textbook knowledge. In contrast, those who are more accepting of science both believe they understand it and score well on the textbook facts (true/false) questions.

When scientific knowledge was thought to be most important for scientific literacy, science communication focused on passing information from scientists to the public. However, this approach may not be successful and may backfire in some cases. Current work suggests that working to address the discrepancies between what people know and what they think they know may be a better strategy.

Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, president of the Genetics Society and co-author of the study commentary, “To cope with some people’s negative attitudes toward science, they probably need to deconstruct what they think they know about science and replace it with a more accurate understanding. This is quite challenging.”

Hurst concludes, “Why do some people have strong attitudes towards science, while others are more neutral? We find that strong attitudes, both for and against, are supported by strong confidence in knowledge about science.”

Magazine reference

  1. Fonseca C, Pettitt J, Woollard A, Rutherford A, Bickmore W, Ferguson-Smith A, et al. (2023) People with more extreme attitudes towards science are confident in their understanding of science, even if this is not justified. PLoS Biol 21(1): e3001915. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001915