For Some, the Tribe is More Important Than the Truth

Posted by – February 22, 2015

There are large differences between how scientists and the public perceive evolution, climate change, vaccination, and more. I have usually attributed this to scientists’ failure to communicate as much as the public’s misunderstanding, but Joel Achenbach’s recent WaPo editorial suggests the real reason is that people tend to choose positions that best align with their social group, regardless of scientific evidence. Achenbach cites a research paper by Dan Kahan, whose abstract states:

Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. An empirical study found no support for this position. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

Or, as former USGS head and current editor of the journal Science, Marcia McNutt, put it, it’s as if:

We’ve never left high school. People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science.

This suggests that, in addition to stating the evidence, scientists might also try pointing out how fellow group members accept the conclusions of scientific research – e.g., noting that Pope Francis has no problem with evolution.