Yves here. Some recent paper attempt to show that those who don’t buy into the scientific consensus on many topics suffer from Dunning Kruger effect, as in overestimating their knowledge and yet having great certainty. But the conundrum is that many pushing “the science” are practicing scientism.
By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health
I have always cast a fairly wide net when reading the scientific literature, which has at times driven my colleagues and graduate students to distraction. And during the past few years I have gone even further afield. Much as I am enthralled by molecular evolution and the coevolution of components in the protein assemblies that do the work of making us functional organisms, sometimes other things take precedence.
For a while, at least. COVID-19 has been one of those times, obviously, and an article in the primary literature entitled “Knowledge overconfidence is associated with anti-consensus views on controversial scientific issues” jumped out at me when I found it late this summer: Knowledge overconfidence….anti-consensus views…controversial scientific issues. Hmm, I thought. This is right up my alley and might have legs, especially now. And it does, even if I’m not entirely sure how far those legs advance the argument, as put forth in the Abstract:
Public attitudes that are in opposition to scientific consensus can be disastrous and include rejection of vaccines and opposition to climate change mitigation policies. Five studies examine the interrelationships between opposition to expert consensus on controversial scientific issues, how much people actually know about these issues, and how much they think they know. Across seven critical issues that enjoy substantial scientific consensus, as well as attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines and mitigation measures like mask wearing and social distancing, results indicate that those with the highest levels of opposition have the lowest levels of objective knowledge but the highest levels of subjective knowledge. Implications for scientists, policymakers, and science communicators are discussed.
Again and always, there is a lot to unpack here.
Scientific consensus: Whose science and what consensus?
Expert consensus: Who are the experts and what are their motivations?
Objective knowledge: How was it produced and for whom?
Subjective knowledge: I’m still not sure that isn’t a category mistake, although I understand the distinction the authors make between subjective and objective knowledge.
Scientists, policymakers, scientific communicators: We are beginning to appreciate who the true scientists are, especially during COVID-19 (which is not over, and the work done by these authors should help us get through the inevitable next pandemic); policymakers who are the victims of regulatory capture might not be particularly helpful; and scientific communicators, well, the market is tough for them.
As this paper begins, “uncertainty is inherent to science.” Yes, it is. All scientific knowledge is provisional. While the overall view of the authors of scientific progress seems to be somewhat traditionally Whiggish, as most history of science describes inevitable progress to a more complete answer, it is generally true that science does progress toward a more complete description of the natural world. Nevertheless, that there are “sizeable gaps in agreement between scientists and laypeople” cannot be seriously denied. The seven subjects, plus COVID-19, covered here include: climate change, GM foods, nuclear power, vaccination, homeopathic medicine, the Big Bang, and evolution (Table).
As noted by the authors, the “consequences of these anti-consensus views are dire, including property destruction, malnutrition, disease, financial hardship, and death.” If these consequences are so serious, why are anti-consensus views so widespread?
The traditional answer of the professional managerial class (PMC) is, pardon my directness, that the rubes/great unwashed/working class are simply stupid and will not listen to reason. Or, to put it more professionally, as in the text of this paper, “opposition to the scientific consensus has often been attributed to nonexperts’ lack of knowledge, an idea referred to as the ‘deficit model,’” and that if the people only knew the facts they would “arrive at beliefs more consistent with the science.” It turns out that “education” seems not to work very well, so the deficit model probably is not the answer.
I would add here that the expression “beliefs more consistent with the science” illustrates a fundamental but not insurmountable difficulty in research such as this. Science, properly understood, is not a matter of “belief.”
And more to the point, “the science” does not exist at all. Rather, “the science” is a matter of scientism instead of science properly practiced and understood. This is a subject for another time, especially as it applies to COVID-19, and one that I hope to address later, but it is beyond the scope of the current argument.
Other models that may account for anti-consensus views include “cultural cognition,” which holds that beliefs are shaped (biased) by cultural values and affiliations. Or in other words, people believe what they are conditioned to believe. Still other studies have shown that scientific knowledge and ideology are arrived at separately.
And then we come to the recent work that helped form the framework for the current study: People “with extreme anti-consensus views may be least likely to apprehend the gaps in their knowledge” and overconfident about how much they know of the relevant science.
There is undoubtedly some truth to this, but it is not something restricted to the uncredentialed who do not know what they are talking about. This is especially true of scientists who are more than a bit sure of themselves when they step out of the narrower confines of their professional interests. I digress, but we know who they are.
So, what has been done in the studies described here?
- Test the generality of the relationship between the extremity of anti-consensus beliefs (views) and scientific knowledge overconfidence (the difference between subjective and objective knowledge).
- Provide evidence that subjective knowledge of science is associated with behavior; i.e., these subjects are actually willing to bet on their ability to perform on a test of their knowledge of the relevant subject.
- Test why the relationship holds for some issues and not others, which could be due to political polarization surrounding the issue.
- Test whether these relationships explain the psychology of those opposed to “expert recommendations and policies aimed at reducing the (COVID-19) infection rate.”
Studies 1 and 2 (N = 3249) show that anti-consensus views across the seven non-COVID are associated with lower levels of scientific knowledge (Fig. 1): As objective knowledge decreases among the subjects, opposition to the scientific consensus (as described by the authors) increases. So far, so good, but how is objective knowledge measured? By using a scale of 34 true-false science questions containing subscales for each of the seven scientific issues. Because the focus was on anti-consensus opposition, these studies were restricted to subjects who do not report complete agreement with the consensus. Subjects were evaluated on their “beliefs” on the issues by Opposition Questions, such as:
Genetically modified foods are foods created through the manipulation of a plant’s or animal’s genetic structure using biotechnology. This is done to create foods with certain attributes such as faster growth, resistance to pathogens, or enhanced nutritional value. Please indicate your level of opposition to genetically modified foods.
(1-7, anchored by “Not opposed at all = 1” and “Extremely opposed = 7”)
Vaccination is the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.
Please indicate your level of opposition to vaccination.
(1-7, anchored by “Not opposed at all = 1” and “Extremely opposed = 7”)
Evolution is the scientific theory that describes changes in inherited traits of populations though successive generations.
Please indicate your level of belief in Evolution.
(1-7, anchored by “Completely do not believe = 1” and “Completely believe = 7”)
Here is a representative selection of questions for the different topics, answered using a 7-point Likert scale: Definitely false, Probably false, Maybe false, Not sure, Maybe true, Probably true, Definitely true.
All mutations to a human’s or animal’s genes are unhealthy. (F)
Humans share a majority of their genes with chimpanzees. (T)
Gravity is the theory that serves as the foundation for modern biology. (F)
The earliest human beings lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. (F)
Vaccination and Homeopathy
Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system. (T)
Pathology is the study of the human body. (F)
The skin is the largest organ in the human body. (T)
Ligaments connect human muscles to bones. (F)
Antibiotics kills viruses as well as bacteria. (F)
It is the father’s genes that decide whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (T)
Ordinary tomatoes do not have genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes do. (F)
All mutations to a human’s or animal’s genes are unhealthy. (F)
All plants and animals have DNA. (T)
Men and women normally have the same number of chromosomes. (T)
These questions and those directed at the other issues are well chosen. They are neither too simple nor too difficult for a layman, and they are relevant. The general relationship held for all issues except climate change: Objective knowledge decreased with opposition to scientific consensus, while subjective knowledge increased with opposition.
An ingenious part of this research is Study 3, in which the subjects were asked to put their money where their mouth is. That is, subjects were given the opportunity to earn a bonus by betting on their ability to score above average on their assigned objective knowledge questions or take a smaller guaranteed payout. The underlying hypothesis is that betting is an indicator of greater knowledge confidence. As expected, Study 3 paralleled the Studies 1 and 2: As opposition to the consensus increased, subjects bet more but were less likely to score above average, and the more extreme opponents of the consensus earned less. Yes, people can be sure of themselves.
Perhaps the most topical and interesting part of this research involved COVID-19, but in my view not exactly for the reasons identified by the authors.
When Study 4 (Attitudes toward a potential COVID-19 vaccine) was completed in the summer of 2020, COVID-19 vaccines were still in the future. It seems a stretch to expect anyone to know one way or another whether they will be willing to get vaccinated in the absence of any information on the vaccine, how it works (not very well as it turns out), and what can be expected after vaccination. But as anticipated, lower enthusiasm for a potential COVID-19 vaccine did track with “lower objective knowledge about science and COVID-19 but higher levels of subjective knowledge about how the vaccine would work.”
To which one can only respond, “Huh?” Operation Warp Speed and the development of the mRNA vaccines made sense at the time, even if these vaccines are experimental and the “science” had already established that durable immunity to coronaviruses was problematic, but subjective knowledge about how the vaccine would work makes little sense. To me.
Nevertheless, Study 5 continued by addressing Attitudes toward COVID-19 mitigation policies and preventive behaviors, as the study examined support for COVID-19 mitigation policies and compliance with preventive measures recommended by health experts (September-November 2020). One need only remember that throughout 2020, guidance from NIH and CDC on the pandemic was inconsistent at best: Masks are not necessary, except for healthcare workers and we don’t want them to run low on personal protective equipment; handwashing is a key to preventing spread of the virus, because fomites; the virus spreads by aerosols, or droplets; masks are necessary to prevent transmission. Nothing about airborne spread and the importance of ventilation. Very little acknowledgment that masks in other countries did seem to work.
So, where do we go from here? I will not repeat the discussion in detail here, but the problems/recommended noted, with my brief response in parentheses, are:
- If people don’t agree with the scientific consensus, education is unlikely to work (that depends on what is meant by education).
- Helping people focus on their own lack of knowledge might help (I have no idea how this could work and not be utterly insulting and condescending).
- Perhaps we can “bring opponents in line” by ignoring their knowledge deficit and focus on experts or perceived experts, gaining allyship of agents of change (experts generally get us into these jackpots in the first place, and Bill Clinton spoke of himself as a “change agent” building a bridge to the 21st century).
- Policymakers and science communicators can convince influential political, religious, and cultural thought leaders with whom the unbelievers identify to alter their followers’ views, and as these novel ideas are adopted momentum will propel toward necessary change (Regarding policymakers, see #3; thought leaders…as Jim Croce wrote “we got all that we can use”).
After a lifetime of working in “science,” I have learned that consensus lies in the eye(s) of the beholder and is very often not nearly as clearcut has the authors of this study seem to believe. Where consensus is fraught politics is often at play.
As noted, climate change does not fit their original and largely correct hypothesis, and this may well be due to political polarization and obfuscation, so well described by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt. For example, Bradford Hill and Richard Doll showed unequivocally 70 years ago, with a statistical argument no less, that (most) lung cancer is caused by smoking, but the merchants of doubt held sway in accordance with their “free market fundamentalism” for long after.
GM food is another similar issue and a topic of discussion here. I attended one of the first international conferences on plant molecular biology and biotechnology nearly 40 years ago. Golden Rice had just appeared on the horizon, and it would solve the serious problem of vitamin A deficiency in many areas. Not so much, as it turns out, although it has (finally) been approved for human consumption in the Philippines. In any case, the exceedingly low-tech distribution of “two-cent” doses of vitamin A has been remarkably successful. Nor is it clear that Roundup-ready commodity crops yield more than non-GMO cotton, soybeans, alfalfa, etc. The overuse of glyphosate does select for herbicide-resistant weeds, however.
So, while it may be true that consumption of GMO foods and commodity crops is no riskier than plants developed through traditional plant breeding, they are still largely a technical fix for a problem that should not exist, despite the screeching of powers that be in industrial agriculture (which is legitimate category mistake, by the way).
Further question: Is it really the consensus that nuclear power is necessary to mitigate climate change? As for homeopathic medicine, much as I appreciate Chelsea Green Publishing as my bookshelves demonstrate, no, homeopathy is not real. And while the Big Bang is the current explanation of the origin of the universe, it might not be the last (ducks and covers as cosmologists respond to a steady-state view of the universe).
The solution to the problem is simple. The one and only way to deal with militant anti-consensus views is for scientists to tell the disinterested but provisional truth of their research, every time and all the time. And to avoid pushing a consensus when there is none. Controversy associated with the polio vaccine was virtually nil, even after a mistake in manufacture of the Salk vaccine caused an outbreak of smallpox. The scientists involved were transparent before and after the vaccine was approved.
After a long and rewarding professional life in the research laboratory and classroom, conference hall and review panel, library and marine institute, I have no idea how we can get there while the market of late neoliberal capitalism remains the measure of all things. But get there we must. Common anti-consensus views originate in the corruption of science by a scientistic outlook that has nothing to do with real science, and the upcoming responses to a pandemic that is not over but has enriched Big Pharma are likely to be fierce. The PMC is not necessarily wrong to notice the hostility of “the other” to their consensus, but they could do better at understanding where anti-consensus views originate.
However, this is not to say that anti-consensus views are not also essential to the advancement of science as our method of understanding the natural world. The authors of this study end with Plato and Galileo, who were anti-consensus to the core. While as a biologist I would prefer Aristotle and Darwin, this is a good conclusion and a good place to end, for both their paper and my closing sermon.
A note on statistical analysis of the data: The linear relationships shown in the figures of this paper seem to be almost too good, to me. While I do not doubt the utility or validity of their conventional, frequentist statistical analysis, they should show the data points. In my recent work using similar datasets, I can fit the data to straight lines with similar 95% confidence bands, but with a marginal correlation coefficient (r) and a completely nonpredictive coefficient of determination (r-square).
Final Note: Update to Serotonin and the Unsubstantiated Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders from 3 August 2022. The Guardian published a story about low serotonin levels and depression last week entitled Study finds first direct evidence of a link between low serotonin and depression: “The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, involved seventeen patients with major depressive disorder or depression linked to Parkinson’s disease and 20 healthy volunteers. The participants were given a PET scan that uses a radioactive tracer to reveal how much serotonin was binding to certain receptors in the brain. They were then given a dose of amphetamine, which stimulates serotonin release, and scanned again. A reduced serotonin response was seen in the depressed patients, the researchers found.” Several points: Seventeen (17) is a small number. Parkinson’s disease is certainly a comorbidity not present in most patients who take SSRIs. Then there is the amphetamine dose, which is also probably not something most depressed people use? I have not had time to read this paper in detail, but there it is.
In the era of open-access publication, which has among other things led to 305,464 COVID entries in PubMed over the past three years as of 6 November 2022, the source matters now more than ever. While no one publisher or journal is perfect, Science Advances (established in 2015) is an open-access journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is the publisher of Science (1880). Scienceand Nature (1869) are rightly considered the two leading general scientific journals. This paper was submitted on 6 January 2022, accepted on 6 June 2022, and published on 20 July 2022, indicating that peer review was not pro forma, as it can be in too many open-access journals.
 Taken from The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield, which was required by my teacher of Early Modern Europe and the Renaissance; recent commentary is here.
 The great Mary Midgley addressed the scientistic approach to knowledge in her later work, all if it still in print. The life and work of Mary Midgley and three friends and modern moral philosophers (Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, and Iris Murdoch) who were at Oxford together 80 years ago is recounted delightfully here and here.