More data on why people reject science

Although I focus mostly on medical topics, such as vaccines, alternative medicine, and cancer quackery, I don’t limit myself to such topics. True, I used to write a lot more about evolution and creationism, the paranormal, and other standard skeptical topics, but over the last couple of years I’ve realized where my strength is and where my niche is. So I continue to do what I do, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in those topics. I’ve just learned that there are those who can do them as well as I can, while the number of people who can do what I do with respect to quackery and medical pseudoscience is much smaller for the simple reason that there aren’t very many trained physicians who take on skeptical topics. I really wish there were, as it would make my job easier and perhaps there wouldn’t be so much quackademic medicine, but there aren’t. In addition, there aren’t any MD/PhDs that I know of who have taken an interest in such topics.

Of course, medical pseudoscience shares a lot of traits with pseudoscience of all stripes. It’s just that the consequences tend to be more direct and immediate. Antivaccinationists lead to disease outbreaks; cancer quacks lead to people dying of cancer when they don’t have to; practitioners of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) offer therapies that usually can’t do any good and can sometimes do harm. In contrast, the effects of other forms of science denialism, such as creationism or anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denialism, tend to be distant in that the consequences of teaching creationism is schools won’t manifest themselves until those children grow up and the consequences of AGW denialism are likely to be decades away. Still, I wonder why people deny science, and that’s why a study caught my eye. It’s not the most rigorous study in the world, but, even so, I think it tells us some useful things about why people embrace irrationality.

The study is from the University of Western Australia:

Researchers from The University of Western Australia have examined what motivates people who are greatly involved in the climate debate to reject scientific evidence.

The study Motivated Rejection of Science, to be published in Psychological Science, was designed to investigate what motivates the rejection of science in visitors to climate blogs who choose to participate in the ongoing public debate about climate change.

The actual study itself is here, and it’s NASA faked the moon landing — Therefore (climate) science is a hoax, which goes to show that even scientists have a bit of a sense of humor.

The authors took an approach that I haven’t seen before. Their approach happens to be both a weakness and a strength, as you’ll see. Basically, visitors to climate blogs were asked to complete an online survey. Links to the survey were posted to eight climate blogs with a pro-science stance. Five AGW “skeptic” (i.e., denialist) blogs were approached but refused. It’s not clear why these bloggers refused to take part, but they did. Be that as it may, I’m sure you can see why this represents a weakness. Basically, the participants were self-selected, which is always a potential confounding factor. On the other hand, in this case it might not be such a bad thing, because the self-selection process is likely to enrich the population for just the sorts of science denialists that we want to study.

The visitors to the blogs, over 1,000 of them, were queried about their beliefs regarding climate science, as well as several common conspiracy theories, such as whether Princess Diana’s death was not an accident; that the Apollo moon landings never happened; that HIV does not cause AIDs; and that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. The interplay of these responses and the visitors’ acceptance of climate scientist were studied, along with questions regarding belief in a free market ideology and the belief that previous environmental problems have been resolved.

Can you guess the results? I bet that you probably can.

Yes, as you might guess, a belief in free market ideology was associated with AGW denialism. This isn’t anything new. We’ve known this for years; it’s been suggested by several studies. In addition, belief in a free market ideology was also predictive of rejection of the scientifically demonstrated link between tobacco and lung cancer and between HIV and AIDS. I must admit, these latter two correlations were unexpected to me. I would expect that extreme free market and libertarian ideologies would be correlated with rejection of AGW science. After all, many of the proposed solutions for AGW involve government action and suggest that big business is a major contributor to the problem. I would have predicted that. I would not have predicted that free market ideology would correlate with the rejection of a link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Maybe 40 years ago, when tobacco companies were still actively trying to undermine the science demonstrating that smoking causes lung cancer, but not now. A better question would have been to ask whether second hand smoke is a health hazard. As for HIV/AIDS denialism, I totally wouldn’t have expected a link with free market ideology, but that’s what the authors found.

More predictable is the link between conspiratorial thinking and AGW denialism, although not so predictable is that it would be a weaker link than the link between free market ideology and AGW denialism. This is, after all, simply another way of describing crank magnetism, which is the tendency for people who believe in one form of crankery or pseudoscience to believe in multiple forms of crankery and pseudoscience. All this study does is to reinforce that concept.

One thing was missing from the study that would have greatly interested me. Given that the authors asked about HIV/AIDS denialism, I was truly surprised that it wasn’t included on the list of topics included in the survey. Regular readers will no doubt have guessed what I’m talking about. That’s right: Antivaccine beliefs. I would have been interested to know whether they correlate with the same sort of extreme free market beliefs. It’s not entirely clear that they would. It’s certainly true that there is a libertarian wing of the antivaccine movement that is closely associated with the “health freedom” movement. However, there is also a more “crunchy,” granola wing of the movement that believes that natural is always better, exhibits an extreme distrust of industry in general and big pharma in particular, and tends to be associated with more left wing politics. Ah, well, it was a lost opportunity.

In the end, this study, although in reality more of survey than a proper study and a self-selected one at that, is yet another bit of evidence that tells us that denial of science almost always boils down to ideology. Science that agrees with a person’s ideology (or that at least does not conflict with it) doesn’t cause a problem. It’s science that challenges ideologist that result in denialism. That’s why fundamentalist Christians tend to reject evolution and free market libertarian types tend to reject AGW. Perhaps more rigorous studies could help define more precisely what drives denialism of the sorts of science that I’m most interested in, specifically science-based medicine, as this current survey only hints at such issues. In the meantime, I’ll simply keep bumbling along in my own way trying to combat in my own litter corner of the blogosphere the rising tide of irrationality when it comes to medicine. At the very least, I can shine a light on the infiltration of quackademic medicine into medical academia.