Psychologists ask: What makes some smart people so skeptical of science?

Jan 23, 2017

By Melissa Healy

In Washington, D.C., revelers and protesters are marking the ascendance of a new president and the populist movement he says he has mobilized.

Some 1,600 miles away in San Antonio, thousands of psychologists from around the world are also marking the dawn of the Trump era by focusing their attention on the thought processes that prompt some people to resist and reject science. Matters for which there is a broad scientific consensus — including man-made climate change, the safety of childhood vaccines and Darwin’s theory of evolution — have been attacked as hoaxes and lies by senior members of the new administration.

Psychologists have come up with a name for this trend: the “anti-enlightenment movement.”


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18 comments on “Psychologists ask: What makes some smart people so skeptical of science?

  • From the article above:

    “We grew up in an era when it was just presumed that reason and evidence were the ways to understand important issues; not fear, vested interests, tradition or faith,” Hornsey said. “But the rise of climate skepticism and the anti-vaccination movement made us realize that these enlightenment values are under attack.”

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/

    The Enlightenment, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    The Enlightenment is the period in the history of western thought and culture, stretching roughly from the mid-decades of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century, characterized by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics; these revolutions swept away the medieval world-view and ushered in our modern western world. Enlightenment thought culminates historically in the political upheaval of the French Revolution, in which the traditional hierarchical political and social orders (the French monarchy, the privileges of the French nobility, the political power and authority of the Catholic Church) were violently destroyed and replaced by a political and social order informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded, ostensibly, upon principles of human reason. The Enlightenment begins with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but, with it, the entire set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world, in accounting for a wide variety of phenomena by appeal to a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae, promotes philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes natural science) from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles. D’Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as “the century of philosophy par excellence”, because of the tremendous intellectual progress of the age, the advance of the sciences, and the enthusiasm for that progress, but also because of the characteristic expectation of the age that philosophy (in this broad sense) would dramatically improve human life.



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  • What makes some smart people so skeptical of science?

    Naïve realism and the failure to recognize the juvenile egocentrism that goes with it.

    Which means they are not so smart after all.



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  • The Enlightenment philosophers fought against religion and the church because of its role in the indoctrination of the people. Religion robs us of our ability to develop and use our tools of skepticism. Without a skeptical outlook on life we will always be vulnerable to all manner of hogwash and magical thinking and will be taken advantage of by every charlatan and snake oil salesman to come down the pike.

    No matter how smart a person might be, if their ability to discern truth from fiction has been compromised since they were children, then they’ll have an uphill battle when they try to analyze information that requires critical thinking and logic.

    Religious belief and rational thinking are diametrically opposed. Smart people can be irrational!

    Better to have a lower IQ with strong ability to think skeptically than a high IQ but with no understanding of logic, critical analysis and rational thinking.



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  • @OP – Psychologists ask: What makes some smart people so skeptical of science?

    I would say it is the public inability to recognise smart thinking!

    Smart thinking should not be confused with plausible confident babbling!

    There is a world of difference between a rich sociopath with a fancy haircut in a smart suit , and an intellectual with a smart brain!



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  • @OP – Psychologists ask: What makes some smart people so skeptical of science?

    This headline is clearly a misuse of the terms “smart” and in the scientific context, the misuse of “skeptical”!

    An ignoramus in denial of science is not “sceptical”, in any scientific context of the word – (which implies informed criticism based on understanding).
    Anyone too incompetent to look up reputable sources of educational information on man-made climate change, the safety of childhood vaccines, or Darwin’s theory of evolution, is NOT “smart”!

    Nobody lacking the basic skills of seeking information to accurately inform and educate themselves, correct their errors, or correct errors in information presented to them by others, can be considered to be “smart”!

    That is not to say that the really dim cheerleaders who share conspiracy theories and bigoted views, will not pronounce each other to be “smart”, – but that is purely a matter of flawed judgement based cognitive bias, and has nothing to do with education, intelligence, competence, or intellect!



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  • Nobody lacking the basic skills of seeking information to accurately inform and educate themselves, correct their errors, or correct errors in information presented to them by others, can be considered to be “smart”!

    Alan, those basic skills that we use to filter truth from fiction, do they need to be taught in a formal way? I have to say that personally, I’d have none of those skills if I had taken the easy road and remained a member of the Methodist church as my family wanted and expected and followed the traditional plan for a woman my age. But the fact that I went to college and pursued a science degree changed everything in how I see the world and process information. I was forced to take two semesters of college statistics. I never swallowed anything hook, line and sinker ever again. Probability and truth has all been reduced to numbers now for me. I can’t understand how nonscience majors are filtering truth from fiction without probability equations – I realize that plenty of them are managing to do it somehow.

    As much as I love your Dunning-Kruger effect (learned about it from you), there are two sides to that coin.

    From Wiki

    The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive incapacity, on the part of those with low ability, to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.[1]

    I have a teacher friend who has developed a course for high school students that teaches them skeptical thinking skills. It’s fantastic! I only wish it would be imported into the standard curriculum for the whole country!

    My point is that it takes a monumental effort to teach the hoi polloi the skeptical thinking tools that they need for a basic competence. They have already been programed by religious institutions to believe what they’re told or burn in hell. Thinking outside the box is way too scary for them! Haven’t we all seen the expressions of terror when we float a few out of the box ideas directly to them? Try telling these people that their imaginary friend in the sky doesn’t exist and that we’re all alone together on this big rock hurtling through space and we need to solve our problems all by ourselves. Terror. But with the right tools – where is the evidence for the existence of God and what is the probability that such an entity could exist, (Richard addressed this in TGD) it’s really a straight shot to atheism. I (we) have those tools (learned) and they just don’t have them.

    The author of the article should have explained what was meant by the word “smart”. High IQ ? High level of academic accomplishment? Neither of these would indicate a competency in the area of skeptical thinking necessarily. And there must be plenty of people out there with average IQs and modest level of education who know a bullshit story when they hear one. Just saying that it’s a separate skill.



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  • Climate denial and Evolution denial are laughable. The information is clear on these two.

    With regard to vaccines, I am not so convinced. I have seen it happening to my son. Clear as day. I have read many testimonies on the internet which seem to be honest and similar to mine. I have heard many industry whistleblowers talking about falsification of safety results. I have also studied the problem a little, and the schedule of vaccines for newborns and composition seem problematic to say the least.

    Suppose I am wrong, and ultimately the vaccines are “generally” safe. How would I know that to be the case? There is a lot of contradictory information out there, some of it coming from credible sources.
    Also, the US government has paid a lot of money for vaccine injuries. So how are they safe?



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  • Anthony Mandolin #8
    Jan 24, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Suppose I am wrong, and ultimately the vaccines are “generally” safe.
    How would I know that to be the case?

    I would suggest you take your information from an expert medical source such as “medline plus” rather than from dubious anti-vaxer websites.

    There is a lot of contradictory information out there, some of it coming from credible sources.

    No medical treatments are 100% safe!
    For approval vaccines need to be significantly safer than the risk from the disease!

    Unfortunately pseudo-science science illiterates are utterly incompetent at evaluating probabilities, calculating risk factors, or getting them in proportion.
    They will simply throw anything into the argument which looks as if it supports their biases when presented to the uneducated!

    I give an example in this earlier discussion of this, in relation to their claims about mercury preservative in vaccines.

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2017/01/a-cleveland-clinic-doctor-spread-anti-vaccine-views-hes-not-alone-among-mds/#li-comment-217169

    There are of course genuine scientific debates on vaccines, just as there are scientific debates about the details of genetics and of climate change.

    That is not the issue!
    The issue is the persistence of pseudo-science deniers in asserting long debunked laughable claims, from charlatans and science illiterates!



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  • What is happening today has been developing for more than a decade among the population of the West : economic policies that have led to a strong erosion of the middle classes that have been forming since the end of W W II. Citizens have fallen into total uncertainty because of the political establishment is unable to explain what will happen to the economies of families due to the emergence of the new technologies; The general impression is that our children will live worse than their parents. The result is that the society of free citizens is becoming a mass society whose main trait is the predominance of a false illusion over reality, also the mass society is impressionable, credulous, intolerant, uncritical, fickle, impulsive; unconscious, simple and exalted and suffers from lack of perseverance ( according to French sociologist Gustave Le Bon, 1841- 1931).
    If you put all together all these ingredients you will understand what’s going on today in the West and why a fellow like Trump won the elections; Le Bon adds : “the mass does not exist without a leader and this one must present qualities like: a strong personality, a strong belief and powerful will ( even to convince the masses about the bullshit he is saying). The real problem is the thinning of the middle class ranks. If there is no solution to this problem, soon we will have a tiny percentage of a wealthy leading class and a huge mass of brainless assholes.



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  • 12
    fadeordraw says:

    “We grew up in an era when it was just presumed that reason and evidence were the ways to understand important issues; not fear, vested interests, tradition or faith,” Hornsey said. “But the rise of climate skepticism and the anti-vaccination movement made us realize that these enlightenment values are under attack.”

    “And the stakes, he added, “are just too high to ignore. Anti-vaccination movements cost lives. Climate change skepticism slows the global response to the greatest social, economic and ecological threat of our time.”

    1stly, it needs underlining that the article is about a future conference; not its results or conclusions, which look to be very hard to achieve.

    2ndly, being enlightened and skeptical do go together and equally apply to what scientists come up with as with supernatural interpretations of planet living; e.g., look at the advice on diet by nutritionists over the past 30 years or how about Y2K.

    As for the era the Australian Horney grew-up in and his naïve presumption, that sounds more like a childhood phase; “fear, vested interests, tradition and faith” have been and are always at play. Indeed, the propensity of scientists to be naïve and simplistic when they venture out of their métier reinforces the importance of adhering to a skeptical approach. Remember, Karl Marx was correct in his analysis of the workings of capitalism, not so much with his conclusion of therefore communism.

    So, “the stakes are just too high” is generating and using fear. As with the scientific evidence for the safe, usefulness of vaccinations, there is scientific evidence that constant sapient population and economic growth is detrimentally influencing the planet’s atmosphere. Re: vaccines, his statement that “anti-vaccine movements costs lives”, places him in the liberal-humanitarian traditional and faith under which every “human” life is “sacred”. His statement that, “Climate change skepticism slows the global response to the greatest social, economic and ecological threat of our time” borders on the hysterical, generating the fear that of sapient annihilation. The real climate change skeptics do not deny what’s happening, but are appropriately skeptical about the proposed solutions and the proposed implementation pace. You know, skeptical that we need to quickly come up with a global response by coordinating a global effort with all greenhouse gas emitting countries while maintaining their economic growth and viability; whatever, I don’t think one does this kind of thing quickly no matter how desperate the situation is going to be.

    And as I’ve proposed previously, I think the source issue for climate change is our instinctual commitment to on-going population and economic growth.

    I apologize for the length of this.



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  • Are the people who do know doing enough? Are they getting down and dirty with the masses, and social media that Trump has seen the value of, and dispelling the crap that’s out there. The scope of those who can teach has changed and I am afraid that snobbery is holding people back. The language is important too. RD seems to have bridged that gap with books that even I can understand but some need even more simple explanations.



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  • My father’s mother, an Italian lady “right off the boat”, used to call me smartadomb (i spelled it phonetically to simulate how her Italian accent would make it sound). She’d use this term whenever I’d do something spectacularly idiotic. Like when I fell out of a tree into a thicket of sticker bushes, face first, and was held, six inches from the ground by the stickers… I had to have the fire dep’t come get me out. Some poor fireman had to climb the tree and drop a lasso around my feet and then loop the rope over a branch and other fireman had to hoist me out. Quite dramatic!

    She would shake her head and mutter smartadomb…. Or when I got my head stuck in the neighbor’s wrought iron fence and was stuck for six hours. Or when a playdate ended with me at the ER (so many times my parents were investigated by CYS). I put my head through our TV screen. I had an arrow from a kids bow and arrow set stuck in my tear duct (almost lost the eye), I had the head of a claw hammer embedded in my forehead. I jumped off a train trestle onto what i thought was a frozen stream — it wasn’t that frozen and I went through AND UNDER THE ICE! I drove a minibike through a garage door. Broke my femur when some bullies chased me up a tree — and then got an ax and cut the tree down with me in it (it took 4 hours). I could list a hundred more.

    Anyway, this is not groundbreaking “science”, here. I am rather smart… or am I? I am smart AND dumb. So is everyone. It just so happens, my “dumb spot” is foreign language (and risky behavior–when I was younger). Try as i might, after 4 years of high school French and one year of college French, i couldn’t speak it with any more fluidity than when I started. Everyone has a “dumb spot” .. some people’s just happens to be science.



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  • Anthony Mandolin,
    I am very sorry that you “have seen it happening to your son”. I’d like to offer you a bit of (hopefully) wisdom.

    Illusions are very very strong. I am emphatically sympathetic to you and your boy, however, what you are seeing occur would have occurred with or without the vaccines. The only additional thing that could have occurred, had you decided to forgo the vaccines, would be additional sickness and discomfort. Please do not carry guilt or resentment regarding the timing of the onset of your son’s malady and it’s coincidental chronology with the vaccination schedule.

    Do yourself a huge favor and look for adult onset autism after vaccination or booster. And, when you see that it is non existent, please exhale and give yourself a break.

    The illusion of creation can be extraordinarily strong — look at bacterial operons. These genetic switches are so so damn clever in their make up and operation, that it is easy to want to attribute their existence to a designer and an intelligent one at that. Then, you see the human genitals and realize that there is a sewer pipe running through a recreational area and realize, it is just an illusion of design because a chimp could and would do a better job with the design of many many things, like DNA polymerase (it only goes one way)… like the laryngeal nerve in the giraffe, the list is crazy long…

    Such is the illusion of vaccines causing autism. There would be evidence and a mechanism, and an explanation, and it would be medicine and logical… no one who knows how the immune system works and who understands how vaccines are prepared thinks they cause autism. And, if there is a small minority who make the claim, the onus is on them to demonstrate it. Not to confuse and scare people and have them carrying around a lifetime of guilt over their decisions hurting their own child.



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  • I can understand being highly sceptical of any science that came out of Monsanto, Nestle, Merck, or Exxon Mobil, but what replaces it? anonymous internet posters? Supermarket tabloids? Oprah? Dr. Oz? religious texts?

    There are various science educators whom I trust if they tell me some now science is legit. They have built up a reputation with me for years, e.g. David Attenborough, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, Bill Nye…



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  • I can understand being highly sceptical of any science that came out of Monsanto, Nestle, Merck, or Exxon Mobil, but what replaces it?

    Publicly-funded peer-reviewed research in Universities.

    That’s what academia is supposed to be mostly about.



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  • What makes some smart people so skeptical of science?

    I do not know how “smart” can be “skeptical of science” but… .
    Anyway, I have noticed around that people generaly are less and less willing to learn and I think it has something to do with responsibility and speed in wich events are taking place in the world. Information is coming to us with a greater speed than before thanks to a comunication devices. People are getting to many information in too short time and in my point of view they can not process them in quality. By that I mean to absorb them with apropriate skepticism or time to learn its functions and properties. I see people do not want to learn any more because they have no time for NEW, so they stay in OLD which is familiar and well known and what is important it gives a sense of being safe (security). In general science is going ahead and brings NEW things to be learned, more information. Quantity of information has replaced quality and people perhaps are being skeptical of any information that comes, by skeptical here I mean a sort of self-defence by which they refuse a priori any information. But there is also a too many false information that come to us with same speed generated by people with an agenda to undermine science. Unfortunately I do not know of any inspectors who are controling and prevent and punish lies and false informations on internet. Basicly anyone can say what they want regardless of truth and punishment and that is perhaps most dangerous weapon in the world.



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