March 02, 2021

The science of science denial

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

The science of science denial

Why do some people embrace science while others ignore it? The answers might surprise you. Join Dodi, Conor, and guests as they tackle this question with COVID vaccines in mind.

CONOR: So, Dodi, 2020 was a year of basically one topic: COVID, COVID, COVID-19, the response, and so on. And 2021 is suddenly about that one topic again, but kind of evolved, right? And we're talking about the arrival and the approval and the distribution of vaccines.

DODI: How to get that to billions of people. Quickly.

CONOR: Yeah. And at the same time, the concern that people have that there is a significant and in some countries, a damagingly significant number of people who are either vaccine hesitant or are absolute vaccine deniers.

DODI: Will they want the vaccine? And this becomes a question of doing good for society.

CONOR: That is exactly right. And it switches from being a question about, you know, believing the science or not into a question about morality. How does it feel? And why? What is it? What is the psychology behind people falling prey to ideas that have no grounding in science?

DODI: And that's what matters on today's episode!

CONOR: Believe it or not, and we have some science to back it up.

So Dodi, I want you to imagine that you're standing in front of a vast, sprawling field, no crops in it just mud, out there in the countryside.

DODI: Sounds very northern England.

CONOR: Yes, it's cold out there. It's miserable. It's sort of just before spring and you are a farmer, and you're looking at your field and you're thinking: What am I going to plant there?

DODI: Right. Okay.

CONOR: So you're not any ordinary farmer, though. You are a farmer of conspiracies.

DODI: Oh, I love this. All right, that's rich.

CONOR: We are going to plant the seeds of conspiracy theories in your field, and we're going to nourish them and grow them. So, what are the perfect ingredients of the manure and other elements that you need to use to grow the perfect crop of conspiracy theory beliefs?

GUEST 1: It's the best question I may have ever been asked.

CONOR: This is Danna Young.

DANNA: I am a Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Delaware.

CONOR: And Danna laid it all out for me. How is it that you plant the perfect conspiracy theory crop?

DANNA: The first thing I would do: I would lay down a nice layer of chaos and uncertainty.

News broadcast snippet

Some 200 Americans have left the epicenter of China's coronavirus outbreak on a US government chartered flight. Hundreds of others, though, are still there. The health crisis in Wuhan has the Trump administration thinking of suspending all US flights to and from Mainland China.

DANNA: Some kind of situational event or series of events that are complicated and stressful and threatening and unclear, unclear in terms of how they're going to resolve, who's going to help them resolve, what the solutions are. And even what the nature of the problem is. I would do that.

News broadcast snippet

Some major airlines including British Airways have already canceled all their China flights, the outbreak is blamed for at least 132 deaths.

Social media platforms are trying to limit the spread of conspiracy theories connecting 5G networks and the coronavirus pandemic, as their YouTube™ videos falsely claimed there's a connection between COVID-19 and a super fast wireless technology. And the past few days people even setting fires to 5G towers in the UK because of these theories. YouTube says these videos could lose advertising revenue and will be removed from search results.

DANNA: And next at the level of the seeds that I would plant I guess would be the people. I would choose seeds that were really interested in having quick answers to questions and wanted closure. I would want seeds that were not very tolerant of nuance and ambiguity, that found truth through intuition in their guts instead of through empirical observation. That's what I would do.

DODI: Whoa, there is a lot to unpack there, but what does Danna say is the most important thing to plant there then: anger or fear?

DANNA: When you're talking about people who already are threat-oriented, and they're socially and culturally conservative, they're concerned about threats in their environment. And they are less tolerant of ambiguity. And they make decisions quickly — those same people are going to seek out information that is also going to scratch that itch. It's going to tell them what the threats in the environment are, it's going to remind them of those things. And it's going to do so in a way that's very clear, and probably emotionally quite sensationalized. Depending upon what kind of social or cultural context you're talking about, they might be filling that heuristic sort of pathway in with different threats.

So, in the United States, racism is the well-worn pathway. When you have a pathway that has been used again and again, because of chronic exposure to narratives that scratch that itch, tell you that the threat is black and brown people. Okay? So it tells you that over and over again, that is very, very accessible. And so any kind of information that casts those people in that light reaffirms that notion that feels right in your gut, because it matches everything else you've always been afraid of, and always have been assuming is the big problem.

DODI: The most striking thing that I'm hearing from Danna's description is kind of like, you know, it's perfect human nature. You know, when urban designers make cities, and they make parks that have these nice 90 degree corners, what they realize is people cut the corner and their footpaths create a diagonal line, right? So they're gonna take the short, easy way when they can. That's just human nature.

CONOR: Yeah, exactly. You want the cognitive shortcuts, you want the things that make it easy for your mind to make sense of the confusion of the chaos that's going on around you.

DODI: So, Conor, the science of not believing facts, what is it psychologically, that is making people embrace conspiracy theories?

CONOR: Well, there's a couple of things that Danna talks about. And part of it is the psychology of people. And part of it is actually the nature of science. But let's go to the psychology of people first.

DANNA: When people feel fearful, it sometimes can trigger information-seeking in ways that are quite adaptive and quite functional. Because if people feel fearful, but they feel like looking for information is going to help guide them and avoid the threat, they actually may consume information in ways that do help them. The problem is, sometimes fear gets so great that then people would rather avoid feeling fearful than try to actually avoid the real threat. So sometimes fear gets so great people just shut down and they tune out. I think that in many ways, that's what's happening with a lot of liberals right now is I think that they feel overwhelmed, and stressed, and fearful of this political environment. And many of them are saying, I can't watch the news anymore.

When you look at the difference between fear and anger, psychologically, anger leads to feelings of personal optimism, which is like: Wait, what? Because anger seems negative and optimism seems positive. But no, it's because anger is accompanied by a target, and anger is accompanied by a sense of momentum, and a sense of efficacy inside. It's like, if there is someone, and I am mad at them, I know exactly what to do about it. Fear is not like that. Sadness is not like that. Guilt is not like that. So, anger is the mobilizing device to be reckoned with.

CONOR: Danna told me about a documentary that she watched early in the spring of 2020, which was basically saying that COVID-19 was not real, and the whole thing was overblown, and the people in charge were lying to the masses. And it hit her in a very personal way.

DANNA: I thought that the entire thing reminded me of a moment in my own life, when my late husband had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. For the first several weeks, I was quite inclined to try to figure out who to blame for it. Where did it come from? Like really digging down some internet rabbit holes about maybe environmental issues, or maybe it was his workplace, or maybe it was his diet, or maybe it was the new house we had moved into. And then once he was in treatment, it was oh, well, maybe it was something about what the doctors did. Maybe the doctors did something wrong.

What I realized, because my late husband was not like that at all, he was someone who was very much like it is random, it's just random. Right? There's no one to be mad at. It's just random. And once I took on his way of looking at the world, and instead of feeling angry, I decided to lean into the moment and just take care of him, and schedule different friends to come visit and help him with meals and you know, put on music and bring the nurses doughnuts and snacks. It brought me a kind of peace. But it didn't have that same kind of like steeling purpose that that anger had originally had. Anger, when you're in that moment of blame, it does bring you a sense of purpose. It's an illogical place to be because you feel as though your anger and all of these possible culprits, that by identifying them, you will solve the problem. No, you won't. If I decided to land on some crazy reason why he got a brain tumor, it wouldn't make the brain tumor go away.

CONOR: So, it took weeks to get to this place, right?

DANNA: I was like: No, but it feels good to say that this is what it is. And this caused it and then I can go down that rabbit hole. But then when you really follow it to its logical conclusion, you're like, that is not going to make it go away, that is not going to save his life, nothing is going to change where we are right now. That's a huge realization, but it's hard to get there.

CONOR: And so she started making these comparisons with what was happening with the COVID nonbelievers. And she realized that...

DANNA: People are desperate to have some sense of control right now.

CONOR: So she wrote an essay for the online publication, Vox about all of this, it's really worth reading. And what she really highlights is a combination of the way that you know, we think about things, but also the way that we need to communicate about science.

DANNA: And perhaps by communicating in this way through this sort of vulnerable story, to have someone read it and say, Wow, that is why I was responding to that documentary, because it made me feel mad, being mad made me feel good. And I got the most self-disclosive emails, when that came out from folks saying that that's exactly what they were doing. And that they weren't sure why. And now they could understand why it was, was pretty wild.

CONOR: So one of the things that makes science so powerful is that it's about the continual erosion of doubt, right? You need doubt for science to work. But of course, in a situation where there's lots and lots of uncertainty, people look for something that's concrete. And science is by its very nature, in the very beginning, as you explore something, is incomplete and inconsistent.

DODI: Science is about questions, not answers, right?

CONOR: It is exactly right. It's about being a little bit less wrong every day, right? But the decisions that governments need to make about like — Do we shut borders? Do we impose restrictions? Do we enforce and mandate the wearing of masks? and so on — need to be based in some form of certainty. But they need to be made before there is certainty. That's what makes it like, really, really difficult for people because the underlying way that science works is the systematic erosion of doubt, and this drive towards certainty. And at the very beginning of something like a pandemic, all that you have is uncertainty. So people go for the things that they find simple, uncertain, and hence, this kind of explosion of conspiracy thinking around it. Does that make sense?

DODI: Almost. Maybe we can get some more help to explain that.

GUEST 2: The pandemic that we're in at the moment is just one of those things where I was like, it's so important for people to know now how to tackle these theories that are coming up all the time, because there's so many with COVID.

DODI: Who is that?

CONOR: This is Haafizah Hoosen.

HAAFIZAH: My background is in infectious diseases, research, and education. I first kind of got drawn into the conspiracy theory side of stuff when I was doing a lot of work with Sense About Science, and just seeing the kind of ideas that people have about science and scientific evidence and what counts as scientific evidence. And then the mistrust that people seem to have in either the science or the people delivering the evidence to them.

CONOR: And last year, much like Danna, she started seeing mistrust in the facts that were available about the coronavirus, how it was spreading, and this mistrust was spreading online with people saying things like...

HAAFIZAH: COVID’s not real, it doesn't really exist; it's just a really bad flu; it was made in a lab and released; it's like population control; there's all of these remedies that supposedly work to get rid of it, and all of these strange things. One of the weirdest things I've heard, and it's weird in its simplicity, I think was, in order to get rid of COVID, all you had to do was drink hot tea. I was so baffled by that, because our bodies as humans are around 37 degrees Celsius, we have acid in our stomachs, and that is essentially hot. I don't know how hot your tea is gonna have to be.

CONOR: And you know, as long as these ideas were, scientists on their own were doing exactly what they should have been doing, releasing the information that they were certain about, and communicating clearly what they were not certain about. Because they were still trying to grasp exactly what this virus was, and how it behaved and how we should respond to it.

HAAFIZAH: I remember seeing pictures circulating about kitchen surface cleaners and stuff like that. And it was saying that it was going to get rid of coronaviruses. And so when scientists were saying: "We don't know what we're dealing with yet", and people were seeing all of the stuff on the back of the ingredients or the advice on their detergents. They were like, well, you must know what coronavirus is because you said, you know this thing says it can get rid of it. And it was kind of making that distinction at the beginning that yes, coronaviruses we do know what some of them are, but this particular one, called COVID-19, it was different.

And so one of the things about science and scientists, and I learned very early on in my research career, was that we never really know anything 100%. And unless you know something 100%, you're very, very apprehensive to say this is it. Because once you do more research into something, that's inevitably going to change. And you're going to get different answers depending on how you've tested certain things or the conditions that you were in.

DODI: So, that's interesting. And that is what you were talking about earlier with the strength and the power of the scientific method: more questions than answers.

CONOR: Exactly. And that's what drives science forward. And as science communicators, we have to learn how to communicate the uncertainty in the data that we have, and the predictions that those data lead us to make in such a way that people can understand that an inaccurate prediction is okay, because we don't have all of the facts and data to back it up yet. But as we progress, things get more and more certain. And that is a gradual process.

DODI: Sure. And we can't forget that it is scary for people to be in uncertain situations. People are looking for certainty. When scientists are being good scientists working the problem out, it's pretty easy. It's cutting that corner, when somebody finds a source of information that gives them a little bit more control.

HAAFIZAH: That's it: control is such an important part, because everything is out of control at the moment. But if you can, in your mind, understand something that gives you back a little bit of that control; and I think that why conspiracy theories have been so popular during this time is no one's in control of anything else. I mean, you're not in control of when you go out of the house, how long you see your friends, or which friends you can see. And so if you can understand or think that you've come to an understanding of something, that does give you back that control.

DODI: So, what can we do about all of this? What is the sum of all of this science of not believing?

CONOR: It's important to appreciate the different levels of mistrust in science — those people who are just hesitant because they've seen things happen really quickly, that normally take a long time; and those people who are, you know, outright conspiracy theorists. So, let's talk about hesitancy first.

HAAFIZAH: The worriers, or the hesitancy is completely natural. I mean, yes, the vaccines have come about really quickly, and they have been developed really quickly. So, I think what would be a really good starting point is to acknowledge that and just kind of give a little bit of validity to that. That idea that, you know, this has come about really quickly. How has it happened so quickly, and how is it, vaccines usually take a really long time, and are now all vaccines going to be produced this quickly?

And, you know, a lot of other fears come into play when talking about the COVID vaccine. But I think the first point is to acknowledge that hesitancy is normal. And it's justified because we had no idea what 2020 was gonna hold for us in any way, shape, or form, and everything came so out of the blue. When we do think about vaccines, as a society we're taught that there's years and years of work and research that goes into these things. And there's a long testing period and a long testing process. And now to see that taken away, essentially, and have these vaccines that are now safe for use, you're kind of thinking: Oh, are they, or aren't they? And so I think that the first point is to acknowledge that you know, that hesitancy is completely normal, that hesitancy has come from somewhere. I mean, if they're not someone who is a complete anti-vaxxer and doesn't believe in vaccines at all, and don't think that they work in any way, shape, or form, and think that they're dangerous, then you're dealing with someone that is a fairly sensible person but just has some concerns, as they would about something new. I'm sure people had concerns about, you know, the internet, or contactless card paying, and stuff like that, as well.

So I think the first step is to take a little step back and just say, you know what, yes, it has come about quickly. We are in a completely different world, essentially, than we were a year to year and a half ago, and science has completely changed. Science and the way that research works has completely changed. And I think it's really important to kind of address the point of how quickly the vaccines have come about, make the point that science and the way science worked, when COVID hit the world that changed. What we saw in the scientific community was absolutely incredible. It was an amazing phenomenon for academics. And it was that information and research into COVID was being shared across the world.

CONOR: And Haafizah says that this is something that's quite rare in the world of science.

HAAFIZAH: As scientists and as researchers, if you're trying to figure out something, you want to keep your research close to you. You don't really want lots of people knowing what's going on with your research, before it's published, before you've had time to do the right type of experiments, before you've had time to speak to your team and speak to your institution and do all of that. A lot of time and effort goes into these discoveries and into these research pieces. And what COVID did was just put the world on hold.

And essentially, so many scientists, and so many professionals that had even a little bit of experience dealing with viruses — dealing with genetics, dealing with sequencing, dealing with infectious diseases, infection, prevention, and control — everyone kind of put down what they were doing, their own personal pieces of research, and worked together to be able to produce something that was helpful to the world. And it started off trying to figure out what we were dealing with to begin with. And the next stage was then figuring out well, what are the most likely routines that we can use that will stop or slow down transmission? And then going on to okay, we've kind of figured out, isolated the virus itself. Now how can we work backwards and try and stop it from spreading (i.e., the vaccine?) And so the amount of collaboration that was going on in the world to get COVID research kind of moved forward and pushed through, because it affected absolutely everyone and every place, was incredible.

DODI: Okay, let's acknowledge the speed of the vaccines that have been developed, in this case explaining how that happened. Because scientists around the world dropped almost everything else and concentrated on this deadly COVID pandemic. What about the other end of the spectrum that the conspiracy theorists deliver? How would I bring a loved one or a family member who believes the conspiracy theory with all their heart, how can I help bring that person back to reality, back to the scientific evidence?

CONOR: Yeah, and sometimes people say things to me like, well, I've lost my parents or my uncle to Fox News or whatever it is. What do you do? Well, let's go back to Danna for this one. She told me that we've now seen that in these really extreme cases, the facts have been proven not to work, that they are basically broken.

DANNA: Conspiracy theories, misinformation, disinformation, their effectiveness has nothing to do with the content of the information. It has to do with the aspects of the audience's identity that are being tapped into. So, different core aspects of social identity.

DODI: Oh, hold on, hold on. What does Danna mean exactly by social identity?

CONOR: She's talking about how we think of ourselves in relation to groups of other people.

DANNA: Like, do I think of myself as a mom? Do I think of myself as a professor? Do I think of myself as a social scientist, as a wife, as a liberal? So, which of these identities am I thinking about at any given point in time, and how does information sort of speak to those identities? What's happening is that these sort of little echo chambers or online groups can constantly and chronically tap into the needs of and characteristics of a specific identity. And the identities that are being tapped into here and being exploited on purpose, are these partisan identities, these ideological identities, identities that are rooted in sort of social and cultural conservatism in particular.

They're often predicated on a racial animus, a sense of class resentment, cultural animus, the urban-rural divide, which in the United States has become synonymous with all of the partisan divide. And once that gets activated over and over and over again, there becomes an emotional connection to membership in that group. And it doesn't matter what the information is, the information doesn't matter. It's about what's being tapped into in these people's identities. So where does that bring us? What's the answer, then? The answer is, do not waste your time with empirical facts and evidence. It is not going to get you anywhere, and you're going to want to jump out a window.

CONOR: So, instead, Danna says we should show them love and respect and understanding.

DANNA: And by talking to them, first and foremost, from the standpoint where you are not coming at them with judgment, you're coming at them with empathy. And you're saying: Listen, I understand the world is crazy right now. Things are crazy. And it is very hard to understand what to trust and what not to trust. And then ask questions. Right, true questions, not sarcastic questions, like, "Why are you so stupid?" — because those defusing forces, those other avenues of interaction are just not happening.

Interpersonal relationships rooted in love and trust are key, and allowing that person to save face is also key. You always have to allow people to save face. So, if you're coming at someone on the internet, and you're saying, ”You're an idiot, you're so stupid,” what do you think they're going to do? You think they're going to be like, ”Oh, my gosh, you're right. I guess I am an idiot.” Right? How would that ever possibly work? So, you’ve got to think, what is your goal? Is your goal actually to bring them back into the reality-based community? Because if that is your goal, then you’ve got to be very, very measured in how you approach this.

DODI: Well, Conor, it is in true scientific method that we don't have an easy answer to this one. This is going to continue to be difficult. We're going to continue to navigate these corners, this evidence, these facts that are broken, but knowing that yeah, we have a solution. They're like, ”I'm gonna get a vaccine when it becomes available to me. Yeah, I'm in!”

CONOR: Yes. But think of the privileged position that you're in not just in terms of availability of the vaccine. Think of the privileged position that you're in as somebody who understands the scientific method, as somebody who's surrounded by science all day, and is exposed to how this has happened within the industry. And I think the industry needs to understand that most people in the world don't have that privileged position. And what they need is reassurance and they need understanding. And they need to be treated with respect and as adults, rather than being slated or tarred with the brush of crazy anti-vaxxers, and so on. The way, as Danna and Haafizah have said, is to reach out to them with caring and love and feeling — which is all very unscientific if you ask me.

DODI: And understand, it's all the soft stuff. And so with love and respect we say thank you for listening to this episode of Discovery Matters. Give us a rating!

CONOR: Thank you and goodbye.

DODI: Our executive producer is Andrea Kilin. Discovery Matters is produced in collaboration with SoundTelling. Production and music by Thomas Henley.

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