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Why do some people reject scientific facts? Researchers have a theory

Why do some people reject scientific facts? Researchers have a theory

Psychologists say they may have identified the key factors that can cause people to reject scientific facts – and it has nothing to do with how intelligent they are.

Researchers from the Universities of Queensland, Oregon, Kent and Yale conducted observational studies, surveys and experiments to find out why some people resist fact-based scientific messages.

They believe their study could be “an emerging theoretical frontier with an eye to making science communication efforts smarter and more effective”.

One key reason why people reject hard science facts, according to the researchers, is that people think more like lawyers than scientists.

A scientist looks through a microscope.
(Lauren Hurley/PA)

They claim people “cherry-pick” pieces of information “in order to reach conclusions that they want to be true” – a term which psychologists call cognitive bias.

Researcher Troy Campbell, from the University of Oregon, said: “We find that people will take a flight from facts to protect all kinds of belief including their religious belief, their political beliefs, and even simple personal beliefs such as whether they are good at choosing a web browser.

“In our research, we find that people treat facts as relevant more when the facts tend to support their opinions.

“When the facts are against their opinions, they don’t necessarily deny the facts, but they say the facts are less relevant.”

Molecular structure.
(Lauren Hurley/PA)

Cognitive bias isn’t a new term in behavioural studies. The term was introduced by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972 and various studies have been conducted over the years on selective perception and how the brain filters, processes and cross-references the new information it receives.

Scientists suggest trying to find common ground to introduce new ideas could help certain science sceptics see a different side to things.

Campbell says: “Rather than taking on people’s surface attitudes directly, tailor the message so that it aligns with their motivation.

Mathematics on blackboard.
(Lee Nachtigal/Flickr)

“So with climate sceptics, for example, you find out what they can agree on and then frame climate messages to align with these.”

They believe keeping an open mind might help. During their studies, the scientists found that people who enjoyed surprising findings – even if these went against their political beliefs – were more open to the new information.

The researchers note that their findings, which were presented in a symposium at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual convention in San Antonio, are preliminary and require more research.

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