Why do people no longer believe in science?

Authored by Jennifer Anstey

A sign on display at a climate change protest [1]


It has been over two hundred years since Edward Jenner proposed the idea of using infection with cowpox to prevent smallpox.[2] Although he was not the first to do so, his practices were met with much speculation at the time, with some claiming that taking pustules from a diseased animal was ‘ungodly’.[2] Advances in science were widely unaccepted for hundreds of years due to it being difficult to accumulate evidence extensive enough to convince the masses of its worth, especially when so few had a scientific education and much of the country believed disease had a cause other than pathogens (often based upon the religious concept of sin).[2] As a result, they saw no need or justification for new discoveries. Our society today feels far from that world of panic and speculation: for some time, vaccines and essential public health measures have been widely accepted as necessary in society. However, in recent years, opposition to scientific statements have grown in popularity, with notable examples being the anti-vaccination and ‘flat earth’ movements. This contempt for experienced scientists and proven theories is particularly worrying at a time where we are told to listen to, accept, and follow instructions to help prevent the worsening of the pandemic.


In the past, compulsory vaccinations for children have been imposed (notably The Vaccination Act of 1853) but were met with an uproar of people claiming it undermined their freedom of choices when it comes to their children.[4] Ultimately this led to it being abolished.[4] Many adopted these views more recently following the claims of one researcher that the MMR vaccine causes autism.[3] He was later taken off the medical register but many still believe his falsified findings due to their wide circulation in the press.[3] In an age of limitless information and ‘infinity scrolling’ it is not hard to see why many have come across these websites and communities of people who distrust science. If someone has had a bad experience with vaccines, for example, and they meet others who have had similar experiences, it does not take long for them to accept their experience as justification for the belief that all vaccines are bad. As communicating with others around the world becomes easier and therefore more common, the number of people contributing to our individual echo chamber increases accordingly. People choose to believe what they want to believe, rather than accepting change and innovation.


COVID-19 is a clear example of this. Following a couple of months of praise for NHS and other key workers, people began to turn on the lockdown response, with many arguing that only a small percentage of people die after infection. To support this argument, a variety of statistics have been presented, generally neglecting scientific evidence and failing to reflect the scale of infection and mortality, which is in the millions globally. Those refuting these falsified statistics are often unable to convince people to re-evaluate their beliefs. For example, the argument that cases are rising because testing numbers are rising has commonly been used to rebut the necessity of further lockdown measures. In the midst of huge amounts of misinformation, it can be difficult to find reliable and accessible sources explaining why this statement is factually incorrect; therefore, for someone with a non-statistical background, it might seem like a reasonable explanation. Additionally, there has been little reporting about the long-term effects of the virus; for example, there is evidence to suggest that ‘long Covid’ can cause premature death and a reduced quality of life. It is vital that the public understand these risks; yet it is surely unrealistic to expect people to listen to the science if the science is not readily available to everyone. This lack of transparency has led to many conspiracy theories, including the accusation that the government have been attempting to control the nation through lockdown measures.


People are scared and misinformed. That is the bottom line. Although it is frustrating to witness the circulation of dangerous ideologies or practices, it is important to understand that it has been made possible by the society in which we live: we are encouraged through social media to express our opinions on any matter through trending hashtags and instant information about current affairs. Everyone becomes a journalist on their own twitter and scientifically-established fact can become irrelevant. In the era of climate change, however, believing in science has quite literally become vital to the survival of the planet.


Many researchers have put this so called ‘anti-enlightenment movement’ down to confirmation bias rather than factors such as intelligence or scientific interest.[5] This is due to the human tendency to trust our own beliefs and sources that confer with them despite the volume of evidence against our views.Studies focussing on the rejection of science suggest that a person’s mind cannot be changed after presentation with data and stated evidence: instead, greater influence can be effected when scientific communicators “tailor the message so it aligns with their motivation”.[5] Challenging those who do not believe in science becomes more difficult as people increasingly take to social media comments as a way of expressing their views. If we want people to begin believing proven scientific discoveries such as climate change, there needs to be a variety of approaches to communicate scientific information clearly. It is impossible to make the entire planet’s views confer with scientific fact but a deeper understanding of human nature and a lack of dismissal is required to persuade a few more to regain trust in the community trying to save this planet.


References


[1] Harvard University Centre for Health & Human Rights, https://fxb.harvard.edu/2020/10/15/humanmigrationandclimatechange/, (accessed January 2021).

[2] BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/jenner_edward.shtml, (accessed December 2020).

[3] National Public Radio, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/01/07/375598652/a-

cow-head-will-not-erupt-from-your-body-if-you-get-a-smallpox-vaccine?t=1605030014180,

(accessed December 2020).

[4] History of Vaccines, https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/history-anti-vaccination-movements, (accessed December 2020).

[5] Science Alert, https://www.sciencealert.com/researchers-say-they-ve-figured-out-why-people-reject-science-and-it-s-not-ignorance, (accessed December 2020).

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