from Emma Young
How do we change beliefs that contradict scientific consensus? Given that such misperceptions can be detrimental to believers, their families, and even society in general, research in this area is crucial. Now, Radboud University’s Aart van Stekelenburg and colleagues report preliminary but promising results that may be helpful in a brief exercise on the value of scientific consensus and its search for that consensus. Your paper in psychology suggests that this could be a more effective approach than just communicating what the scientific consensus is – at least for some false beliefs.
For one of their studies, the team recruited 854 US-based participants, all of whom believed that genetically modified foods were worse for our health than non-genetically modified foods. Some participants were given an infographic explaining how a scientific consensus develops and why this is very useful in deciding whether or not a new claim is likely to be true. It also provided a three-step guide to evaluating a new claim (such as that found in a news article):
- Look for a statement that indicates consensus
- Check the source who made the consensus statement.
- Assess the expertise of the consensus
The training also included a short practice session with feedback on how to apply these steps.
These participants, as well as one other group who did not receive this three-step guide, read a news article from in 2017 science about a new fungus-resistant, genetically modified banana. For some participants, the article mentioned that a survey found that 92% of “working PhD biomedical scientists” said that genetically modified foods were just as safe to eat as non-genetically modified foods. It then conveyed the scientific consensus on the issue – and overall, participants who saw this statement felt more positive about genetically modified foods than those who didn’t. But importantly, the participants in the training group showed even greater shifts in their beliefs towards the consensus that those who did not receive the training were even stronger. The team argues that the results represent “extreme evidence for promoting consensus thinking” to correct misperceptions.
However, when the team did a very similar study of climate change skeptics, they did not get this result; The training on consensus thinking did nothing to change the belief of these participants that current climate change is not primarily due to human activity.
There are several possible reasons for the different results, the team believes. Confidence in climate scientists in the US is relatively low; If you don’t trust scientists in the first place, you are likely to be less interested in or influenced by a consensus. The scientific consensus on climate change has also been widely highlighted on regular and social media. So it is possible that this group already knew all about the consensus and still stuck to its beliefs – while the genetically modified food group may have been less aware at the beginning that genetically modified foods are safe and therefore responded better to the messages, the team suggests.
Overall, however, there are arguments in favor of strengthening consensus thinking, writes the team. One of them is: instead of telling someone what he is should believe the training is designed to “enable individuals to understand and make optimal use of the information available in relation to a scientific consensus”.
This is clearly preliminary research and the results have been mixed. But as the first experimental work to test the scientific consensus of people with opposing beliefs, this is a useful step forward.
– Improving understanding and identifying scientific consensus can help correct false beliefs
Emma Young (@EmmaELJunge) works at BPS Biomedarticles