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People who disagree with scientists often overestimate their own scientific knowledge, study finds

PROVIDENCE, RI [Brown University] — People who dispute scientific consensus on topics such as vaccine efficacy, climate change or the Big Bang tend to overestimate their own knowledge of these subjects, a new study has shown.

The study, led by scholars at Brown University, Portland State University and the University of Colorado Boulder, surveyed thousands of Americans online, quizzing them on scientific facts and soliciting their opinions on eight contested topics, including the COVID-19 vaccine.

The scholars found that respondents who answered more factual questions correctly were more likely to agree with the scientific consensus about each topic. On the other hand, those who answered many factual questions incorrectly but thought they understood certain topics well were more likely to disagree with the scientific consensus. For example, many who said in July 2020 that they would “definitely not get the vaccine” incorrectly answered questions about how viruses spread and how vaccines work, but then said they thought they had a “thorough understanding” of how a COVID-19 vaccine would work.

The research was published in Science Advances.

Steven Sloman, a co-author of the study and a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown, said the findings demonstrate that whether or not people agree with scientists doesn’t just depend on how well they understand the science — it also depends on how well they perceive their own understanding. The research also shows the extent to which alternative facts have taken hold in many communities.

“It is a sad fact that our society has returned to an era in which many people’s sense of what’s true is governed more by the beliefs of the people around them than by the hard work of scientists using evidence to test their hypotheses,” Sloman said .

Nick Light, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of marketing at Portland State University, said the study reveals why fact-based educational interventions have had only limited success in convincing people to, say, get vaccinated or reduce their individual carbon footprints.

“For many years, smart people thought that the way to bring people more in line with scientific consensus was to teach them the knowledge they lacked,” Light said. “Unfortunately, our research suggests that there may be a problem of overconfidence getting in the way of learning… If people think they know a lot, they have minimal motivation to learn more.”

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