Anyone who’s had a conversation with me recently has heard me insist, “If we keep thinking the problem is that we need to bring people onto ‘our’ side, we’re going to stay stuck! We need to figure out how to communicate with each other.” Look, I know I’m not saying anything original here. It’s just that I can't stop talking about this research article from Light et al. (2022) about their five studies examining the relationships between what lay people know (objective knowledge), what they think they know (subjective knowledge), and what scientists agree is true (scientific consensus). Truth be told, while the results have me worried I’m much more concerned about what we’re going to do with the information.
In studies 1 and 2, researchers focused on seven issues for which there is scientific consensus: climate change, genetically modified foods (GMOs), vaccination, nuclear power, homeopathic medicine, evolution, and the Big Bang theory. They found that when it comes to these issues, the more someone disagrees with scientific consensus on an issue, the less they actually know about it, but (here’s the kicker) the more they think they know about it. They went on to replicate these results in three more studies including one focused on the COVID-19 vaccine and another regarding COVID-19 preventative measures. One study even showed that folks with anti-consensus beliefs are so confident in their knowledge that they were willing to bet on it. As opposition to scientific consensus increased, so did the likelihood that participants would bet their objective knowledge scores would be above average for their assigned topic. As a result, the participants who were more likely to bet, were also more likely to go home with less money.
So, what now? Based on their results, Light et al. (2020) concludes that efforts focused on changing objective knowledge, like public health campaigns, won’t reach the people who most need the message. Instead, they recommend focusing on helping people change the way they view their own knowledge:
1) Get people to explain their theories with more depth. This can reduce subjective knowledge and shift credibility to experts.
2) Give them credible references to reduce their uncertainty and reliance on subjective information.
3) Influence the influencers. Since people are prone to bend to social expectation, focus your efforts on community leaders who can influence the behaviors of large groups.
A final thought, whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you know more than you do about people with anti-consensus views. For example, in study 5, they controlled for political identity and found that it could not completely explain the results.
Light, N., Fernbach, P.M., Rabb, N., Mugur, G. V., & Sloman, S. A. (2020). Knowledge overconfidence is associated with anti-consensus views on controversial scientific issues. Science Advances, 8, (29) https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abo0038