Why do opinions on well-established science vary greatly among individuals? For years, scientists believed that understanding science leads to a positive attitude towards it. However, new research suggests that this may not be the case.

A study published in PLOS Biology by Cristina Fonseca of the Genetics Society in the UK, Laurence Hurst of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, and their colleagues, reveals that individuals with strong attitudes towards science often overestimate their level of understanding, while those with neutral attitudes are less confident in their understanding.

The study found that individuals with strong negative attitudes towards science often possess an overestimated belief in their level of understanding. This is significant when it comes to discussing controversial scientific topics such as vaccines, climate change, and genetically modified foods.

To effectively communicate science, it is essential to comprehend the reasons behind varying attitudes towards the same scientific information.

The study surveyed over 2,000 adults in the UK and collected data on their attitudes towards science and their perception of their own understanding.

Several past studies have revealed that people who don’t like science tend to have a low level of textbook knowledge but a strong sense that they understand. With this as a starting point, the team wanted to find out if strong self-belief was the key to all strong attitudes.

The team concentrated on genetic research and posed attitudinal questions such as “Many claims about the benefits of modern genetic science are greatly exaggerated.” People might express how much they agreed or disagreed with such a remark.

They also questioned people about how much they thought they understood about the subject, such as “When you hear the term DNA, how would you rate your understanding of what the term means.”

Everyone got a score between 0 (they know they don’t understand) and 1 (they are confident they understand). The study observed that individuals with extreme attitudes toward science — both those who are very favorable and those who are strongly opposed – had a high level of confidence in their own knowledge, whereas those who responded neutrally do not.

According to the researchers, this makes sense from a psychological standpoint: to maintain a strong viewpoint, one must be convinced of the accuracy of his or her comprehension of the essential facts. The present team was able to reproduce previous findings that persons who are most pessimistic do not have a high level of textbook knowledge.

People who are more open to science, on the other hand, both think they understand it and did well on the “true or false” questions about facts from school.

When it was believed that scientific knowledge was most important for scientific literacy, science communication centered on the dissemination of information from scientists to the public.

However, this strategy may fail and in certain instances may backfire. The current work suggests that it might be better to try to fix the gaps between what people know and what they think they know.

“Confronting negative attitudes towards science held by some people,” according to co-author prof. Anne Ferguson-Smith, “will likely involve deconstructing what they think they know about science and replacing it with more accurate understanding. This is quite challenging.”

According to Hurst, strong attitudes towards science, whether positive or negative, are rooted in a person’s confidence in their knowledge of the subject.

“We find that strong attitudes, both for and against, are underpinned by strong self-confidence in knowledge about science.”

Image Credit: mathew schwartz, Unsplash (CC0, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)



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