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Humans are hardwired to dismiss (coronavirus) facts that don't fit their worldview

Stylized SEM of the SARS coronavirus.
(Image: © MedicalRF.com/Getty Images)

Bemoaning uneven individual and state compliance with public health recommendations, top U.S. COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci recently blamed the country's ineffective pandemic response on an American "anti-science bias." He called this bias "inconceivable," because "science is truth." Fauci compared those discounting the importance of masks and social distancing to "anti-vaxxers" in their "amazing" refusal to listen to science.

It is Fauci's profession of amazement that amazes me. As well-versed as he is in the science of the coronavirus, he's overlooking the well-established science of "anti-science bias," or science denial.

Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes.

Within segments of the political blogosphere, global warming is dismissed as either a hoax or so uncertain as to be unworthy of response. Within other geographic or online communities, the science of vaccine safety, fluoridated drinking water and genetically modified foods is distorted or ignored. There is a marked gap in expressed concern over the coronavirus depending on political party affiliation, apparently based in part on partisan disagreements over factual issues like the effectiveness of social distancing or the actual COVID-19 death rate.

In theory, resolving factual disputes should be relatively easy: Just present strong evidence, or evidence of a strong expert consensus. This approach succeeds most of the time, when the issue is, say, the atomic weight of hydrogen.

But things don't work that way when scientific advice presents a picture that threatens someone's perceived interests or ideological worldview. In practice, it turns out that one's political, religious or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one's willingness to accept expertise on any given politicized issue.

"Motivated reasoning" is what social scientists call the process of deciding what evidence to accept based on the conclusion one prefers. As I explain in my book, "The Truth About Denial," this very human tendency applies to all kinds of facts about the physical world, economic history and current events.

Denial doesn't stem from ignorance

The interdisciplinary study of this phenomenon has made one thing clear: The failure of various groups to acknowledge the truth about, say, climate change, is not explained by a lack of information about the scientific consensus on the subject.

Instead, what strongly predicts denial of expertise on many controversial topics is simply one's political persuasion.

A 2015 metastudy showed that ideological polarization over the reality of climate change actually increases with respondents' knowledge of politics, science and/or energy policy. The chances that a conservative is a climate science denier is significantly higher if he or she is college educated. Conservatives scoring highest on tests for cognitive sophistication or quantitative reasoning skills are most susceptible to motivated reasoning about climate science.

Denialism is not just a problem for conservatives. Studies have found liberals are less likely to accept a hypothetical expert consensus on the possibility of safe storage of nuclear waste, or on the effects of concealed-carry gun laws.

Denial is natural

The human talent for rationalization is a product of many hundreds of thousands of years of adaptation. Our ancestors evolved in small groups, where cooperation and persuasion had at least as much to do with reproductive success as holding accurate factual beliefs about the world. Assimilation into one's tribe required assimilation into the group's ideological belief system — regardless of whether it was grounded in science or superstition. An instinctive bias in favor of one's "in-group" and its worldview is deeply ingrained in human psychology.

A human being's very sense of self is intimately tied up with his or her identity group's status and beliefs. Unsurprisingly, then, people respond automatically and defensively to information that threatens the worldview of groups with which they identify. We respond with rationalization and selective assessment of evidence — that is, we engage in "confirmation bias," giving credit to expert testimony we like while finding reasons to reject the rest.

Unwelcome information can also threaten in other ways. "System justification" theorists like psychologist John Jost have shown how situations that represent a perceived threat to established systems trigger inflexible thinking. For example, populations experiencing economic distress or an external threat have often turned to authoritarian leaders who promise security and stability.

In ideologically charged situations, one's prejudices end up affecting one's factual beliefs. Insofar as you define yourself in terms of your cultural affiliations, your attachment to the social or economic status quo, or a combination, information that threatens your belief system — say, about the negative effects of industrial production on the environment — can threaten your sense of identity itself. If trusted political leaders or partisan media are telling you that the COVID-19 crisis is overblown, factual information about a scientific consensus to the contrary can feel like a personal attack.

Denial is natural

This kind of affect-laden, motivated thinking explains a wide range of examples of an extreme, evidence-resistant rejection of historical fact and scientific consensus.

Have tax cuts been shown to pay for themselves in terms of economic growth? Do communities with high numbers of immigrants have higher rates of violent crime? Did Russia interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Predictably, expert opinion regarding such matters is treated by partisan media as though evidence is itself inherently partisan.

Denialist phenomena are many and varied, but the story behind them is, ultimately, quite simple. Human cognition is inseparable from the unconscious emotional responses that go with it. Under the right conditions, universal human traits like in-group favoritism, existential anxiety and a desire for stability and control combine into a toxic, system-justifying identity politics.

Science denial is notoriously resistant to facts because it isn't about facts in the first place. Science denial is an expression of identity — usually in the face of perceived threats to the social and economic status quo — and it typically manifests in response to elite messaging.

I'd be very surprised if Anthony Fauci is, in fact, actually unaware of the significant impact of politics on COVID-19 attitudes, or of what signals are being sent by Republican state government officials' statements, partisan mask refusal in Congress, or the recent Trump rally in Tulsa. Effective science communication is critically important because of the profound effects partisan messaging can have on public attitudes. Vaccination, resource depletion, climate and COVID-19 are life-and-death matters. To successfully tackle them, we must not ignore what the science tells us about science denial.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Jan. 31, 2020.

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This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

  • patricia win
    admin said:
    Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities, allowing them to dismiss scientific facts about coronavirus.

    Humans are hardwired to dismiss (coronavirus) facts that don't fit their worldview : Read more
    " simply one's political persuasion"? Yes, it may look like that and this was a well-constructed article, but, it struck me as a curious defense of people who have jumped on board with a science denier and a politician who has fanned the flames of hate to get elected. Putting it all on tribalism, something that admittedly is in our genes appears to be ignoring that some humans may evolve better than others. Suggesting that the higher educated conservatives tend to be the ones who are less informed and care less about evolution is interesting if that is true. I'd like to see some stats on that. It could mean that the particular colleges they chose to attend didn't teach science as well, or may have had professors who just were as close-minded as their students?
    I found this article to be highly questionable. What about cognitive dissonance? He doesn't mention it but many of the people who don't believe the science seem to come from parts of the country and/or families who have been closed-minded and rigid about many issues for a very long time. Isn't it also possible that some Americans have been evolving and thinking outside the box a lot longer than others?
    Wonder how if the author or many of your readers have read "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" by Richard Hofstadter?
    This article almost sounds like a reactionary defense of a large part of American society that is more easily swayed by a rather simple-minded authoritarian man than by independent thinking. Does the author really believe that progressives, liberals, all or mostly just jump on one side of a team the way Repubs have been doing? In recent history, at least, one of the biggest critiques of Dems is that there it is so difficult to get an agreement, cohesion from them.
    And to bring up Russia as an example, a totalitarian regime is, I think, really telling. No country is pure. We all have our groups of closed-minded, irrational partisans. There's no such thing as a purely rational country because none of us are. But, using Russia as an example of anything except for a country ruled by fear, is insulting to one like ours that, at least supposedly, cares about democracy.
    Reply
  • Occams_Razr.
    Science is truth?!?! Wow. Science is about probability, about providing the best plausible explanation using the best evidence we have. As best we try, there is always more to learn and understand. In my view, it is ridiculous to claim science is truth. I am glad though, that the author pointed out that we ALL engage in motivated reasoning. We all have filters and worldviews. No one is immune.
    Reply
  • Hitshed
    Awww man, now all th' flat earthers and such (prolitical picks) will come in h'year and mitch and bone and express their denial...oops, sorry, I see some already have...
    Reply
  • awsponseller
    I am perplexed that anti-science rhetoric is so often aimed at conservatives with nary a word about liberals (although you did nod to that with your reference to the majority liberal nonsensical position on atomic energy). For example, where do you stand on the denial of science in the debate over genders?
    Reply
  • John stat bio
    Even if carbon dioxide is causing warming, there are any number of questions.
    1. Is our climate now at optimum? and what evidence is there to support that assertion?
    2. What actions can mitigate the so called problem? Do we bring all of the world back to the stone age?
    3. There is some justified concerns about data and modeling? Models prove nothing - they are simply theorizes expressed in mathematical terms. If the theory is wrong, the model will be wrong.
    4. These simplified models can not explain the middle age warming or the little ice age. They are ignored.
    5. There is good evidence that the Younger/Dryas cooling was caused by extraterrestrial event. Such events are chaotic and are not modeled.
    6. Claims made by climate warming supporters tend to ignore facts that might moderate their views. For instance the period from 1929 to 1939 was a very warm period with drought and the Dust Bowl. This was followed by a decade of cooler weather. Why? CO2 does not explain it.
    7. Extreme warm events are assumed to be proof of the theory while extreme cool events are dismissed as aberrations. I have seen people use the warm cycle of the Pacific decadal oscillation as proof of global warming, not realizing that this occurs every thirty years or so following a cool period of similar length. Alternate layers of sardine and anchovy scales in the Santa Barbara Channel show that this has been happening for at least 5000 years.

    Science doesn't believe. A true scientist will entertain theories and come up with hypothesis realizing that with more information and time these theories will be altered, improved or perhaps proven in error..

    So if I were asked if I believed in "Global Warming" I would say no. I can entertain the idea, reserving my right to examine information and perhaps improve the theory or perhaps throw it out - depending on where data led.
    As soon as anyone uses the word "believe" I know that they are not scientists and do not understand the scientific method. Belief belongs in religion, not science.
    Reply
  • hellopunyhumans
    John stat bio said:
    Even if carbon dioxide is causing warming, there are any number of questions.
    1. Is our climate now at optimum? and what evidence is there to support that assertion?
    2. What actions can mitigate the so called problem? Do we bring all of the world back to the stone age?
    3. There is some justified concerns about data and modeling? Models prove nothing - they are simply theorizes expressed in mathematical terms. If the theory is wrong, the model will be wrong.
    4. These simplified models can not explain the middle age warming or the little ice age. They are ignored.
    5. There is good evidence that the Younger/Dryas cooling was caused by extraterrestrial event. Such events are chaotic and are not modeled.
    6. Claims made by climate warming supporters tend to ignore facts that might moderate their views. For instance the period from 1929 to 1939 was a very warm period with drought and the Dust Bowl. This was followed by a decade of cooler weather. Why? CO2 does not explain it.
    7. Extreme warm events are assumed to be proof of the theory while extreme cool events are dismissed as aberrations. I have seen people use the warm cycle of the Pacific decadal oscillation as proof of global warming, not realizing that this occurs every thirty years or so following a cool period of similar length. Alternate layers of sardine and anchovy scales in the Santa Barbara Channel show that this has been happening for at least 5000 years.

    Science doesn't believe. A true scientist will entertain theories and come up with hypothesis realizing that with more information and time these theories will be altered, improved or perhaps proven in error..

    So if I were asked if I believed in "Global Warming" I would say no. I can entertain the idea, reserving my right to examine information and perhaps improve the theory or perhaps throw it out - depending on where data led.
    As soon as anyone uses the word "believe" I know that they are not scientists and do not understand the scientific method. Belief belongs in religion, not science.
    I would hate to say amen to the last 2 sentences, because I'm an Athiest, but here goes. AMEN.
    Ok, now that I got that out of my system, I can now move on to picking this apart, like a crab the tastiest gross thing I have every eaten. For the current global ecosystem, optimal tempuratures are a few degrees cooler than the current average, above that, corals bleach, oxygen shelves rise, and Antarctic Habitats disapear.
    No, stone age not nessacary. If we can develop and impement safer and greener ways to produce energy, we don't need to worry as much.
    Models alone do not prove anything. They are exactly what you said they were. Next.
    Small climate fluctuations will always occur, henceforth middle age warming. The little Ice age I think was caused by krackatoa and 13th century tropical eruptions.
    Does this look like normal temperature change:

    http://www.realclimate.orghttps://www.livescience.com/images//Marcott_PAGES2k.png
    Reply
  • Pax
    First you argue that Fauci must be unaware of the science of denial, then you conclude you'd be surprised if he was. OK, i get you needed a platform for your soapbox, but at the end of the day, understanding the science of denial hasn't done much to improve our lot. Dumb asses like Trump will always politicize their denial because for them the end justifies the means. Less science, less regulation, more profit.
    Reply
  • Astro Wagon
    You can also say that humans are hardwired to except facts about COVID19.
    Reply
  • adam
    Whether we are hardwired or conditioned by our interests or background etc is open to discussion but it would be reasonably logical to assume that we are unwilling to give up our ideas or things that serve us. This means we hide what is true when it does not serve us or damages us to reveal something.

    Even within the standard framework of thesis, anti-thesis and then synthesis this creates great conflict between vested interests such as economic, political and intellectual groups who wish to protect their turf and so try to prove they are right for their own ends.

    We can see this with cigarette smoking. Today smoking is generally considered bad for health. Previously various groups argued smoking was or was not damaging to health.

    Climate change and Covid-19 have resulted in huge differences of opinion being promoted.

    Opinions are not science, unfortunately science has been co-opted by all sides to support their arguments so what is science and opinion has become blurred in the media or in discussions.

    The only human subject that seems relatively free from debate is math as the results can be shown immediately and are rapidily repeatable.

    With Covid-19 it seems that it is being used by economic, political and intellectual groups to promote their interests.

    The various experts around the world all seem to have political agendas. The WHO gave conflicting or problematic messages on Covid-19 as did the Chinese and USA Governments.

    I think if we avoid saying who we believe was right or wrong we can accept that views and information were changing and after the event some views were misleading.

    Some may say this was deliberate others that this was just circumstances.

    The point for me is that with almost any subject there seems to be an unwillingness for any party to admit they were wrong and supply meaningful information that shows why they were wrong and how it happened. This extends any problem and misinformation which wastes time and progress to a solution.

    I think this is part of the human condition. We fear our real or imaginary or potential enemies will use what we disclose openly against us so we become economical with the truth.

    If we could change and make disclosure and openess a key part of any process we would all progress with greater respect, belief and harmony.

    Openess would also produce huge economic, scientific, spiritual and intellectual advancement. Lets move past a desire to protect to a willingness to be open and respectful as quickly as possible
    Reply
  • hellopunyhumans
    Astro Wagon said:
    You can also say that humans are hardwired to except facts about COVID19.
    I hate to be a grammar nazi, but...... accept
    And if they are facts, then they are true no matter if you accept them or not. I'm personally in the camp of read the entire scientific paper.
    Reply