Evolution, Climate and Vaccines: Why Americans Deny Science

The U.S. has a science problem. Around half of the country’s citizens reject the facts of evolution; fewer than a third agree there is a scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, and the number who accept the importance of vaccines is ticking downward.

Those numbers, all gleaned from recent Pew and Gallup research polls, might suggest that Americans are an anti-science bunch. But yet, Americans love science. Even as many in the U.S. reject certain scientific conclusions, National Science Foundation surveys have found that public support of science is high, with more than 75 percent of Americans saying they are in favor of taxpayer-funded basic research.

“The whole discussion around scientific denial has become very, very simplified,” said Troy Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Oregon.

Campbell and other psychologists are presenting findings from polls and other research that they say reveal Americans’ complex relationship with science. The presentations are occurring today (Jan. 21) at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) in San Antonio.

Science denial — whether it comes in the form of dismissing fact-based evidence as being untrue or in accepting notions that are not factual as being true — is not typically rooted in blanket anti-science attitudes, the research showed. But the facts aren’t always paramount, either. Often, people’s denial of scientific evidence is based on motivations other than finding truth, such as protecting their social identity, the research said.

One key thing to understand about people who engage in science denial is that very few people deny science as a whole, according to research by Yale University psychologist Dan Kahan, also presenting at SPSP on Saturday. For example, the more liberal a person is, the more likely he or she is to agree that humans are causing global warming; a conservative is far more likely to blame natural climate variation or say scientists are making the whole thing up.

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