According to a new study published in Advances in science. The findings are consistent with the Dunning-Kruger effect, a well-documented phenomenon in which people who lack skills or knowledge tend to overestimate their abilities.

“I’m interested in the public’s understanding of science because it’s incredibly important to societal and environmental well-being,” said study author Nick Light, an assistant professor of marketing at Portland State University. “When people act in ways that go against good science, people get sick, lose their homes, lose money, get displaced, or even die (as is the case with COVID, natural disasters, etc.). The better we understand why people hold attitudes that conflict with the scientific consensus, the better scientists or policymakers can design interventions to help people.”

In two initial studies, which included 3,249 US adults recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk and Prolific Academic, participants were randomly assigned to indicate their level of support or opposition to one of seven scientific issues: climate change, modified foods genetically, nuclear energy, vaccination. , evolution, the Big Bang or homeopathic medicine. Participants were asked to rate their understanding of the topic on a 7-point scale ranging from “Unclear understanding” to “Complete understanding”.

To assess their science knowledge, participants then answered 34 randomly ordered true-false questions. The questions covered a wide range of scientific topics, including “True or false? The center of the earth is very hot, “True or False? All insects have eight legs, and “True or False? Venus is the closest planet to the sun.”

Light and his research team found that people who were most against the scientific consensus on their particular topic were more likely to claim to have a “thorough understanding” of it. But those who were most against the scientific consensus tended to score worse on the objective science knowledge test.

“Scientists are constantly debating the best ways to explain the world around us,” Light told PsyPost. “Sometimes, however, the evidence is so strong or consistent that most of them agree on something. This is what we call scientific consensus. In this paper we find that people who hold attitudes that are more against the scientific consensus think they know the most about scientific issues, but actually know the least.”

The researchers also found some evidence that political polarization can weaken these relationships. For more politically polarized issues, the relationship between opposition to scientific consensus and objective knowledge was not as negative.

“The main caveat is that although this pattern of effects appears to be fairly general, we don’t find it for all cases,” Light said. “An obvious example is climate change. Our next steps involve really digging deeper into psychology to try to understand why we don’t find these effects for some issues.”

In a third study, which involved 1,173 American adults, participants were given the opportunity to bet on their ability to score above average on an objective science knowledge test. Consistent with previous studies, Light and his colleagues found that participants with greater opposition to the scientific consensus tended to earn less due to overconfidence in knowledge.

In a fourth study, which included 501 participants, researchers examined whether excess knowledge was associated with willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The study was conducted in July 2020, before a vaccine was available to the public. Participants were asked their willingness to receive a vaccination in the future and then rated how a COVID-19 vaccine would work.

Participants then completed a 23-question science knowledge test, which included six items about COVID-19, such as “True or false? COVID-19 is a type of bacteria” and “True or false? COVID-19 can be transmitted through houseflies.”

Light and his colleagues found that participants who were more against receiving a vaccine tended to report having a better understanding of how a COVID-19 vaccine would work, but their general knowledge of science and COVID-19 tended to be worse.

A fifth study with 695 participants, conducted in September 2020, found a similar pattern of results regarding COVID-19 mitigation policies. The results held even after controlling for political identity.

The researchers said the findings have several practical implications for science communicators and policy makers.

“Given that the most extreme opponents of the scientific consensus tend to be the most confident in their own knowledge, evidence-based educational interventions are less likely to be effective for this audience,” Light and his colleagues write. “For example, the Ad Council conducted one of the largest public education campaigns in history in an effort to convince people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. If individuals with strong anti-vaccine beliefs already think they know all there is to know about vaccination and COVID-19, then the campaign is unlikely to convince them.”

The study, “Excessive Knowledge Is Associated with Counter-Consensus Views on Controversial Scientific Issues,” was authored by Nicholas Light, Philip M. Fernbach, Nathaniel Rabb, Mugur V. Geana, and Steven A. Sloman.

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