4.1. Implications for Science Communication
The NPSS provides insights into public resistance to science by proposing four distinct factors that characterize different aspects of negative perceptions of science. We know audiences sometimes understand the science that underlies a particular issue, even though they may reject the scientific theory or explanation. One of our domains (science as onerous) reflects aspects likely associated with the general “deficit” model that has been the dominant paradigm in much science communication research and practice. The other dimensions (limited, heretical, and corrupt) tap other conceptually distinct components that do not clearly fit within a deficit model. In fact, viewing science as onerous was a significant predictor in only five of our 11 target beliefs. Additionally, it was the dominant predictor in only one anti-science belief (astrology). In contrast, the view that science as corrupt was a significant predictor in six of our target beliefs and was the dominant predictor in four beliefs (global warming, cancer cures, and fluoride). Science as heretical was significantly associated with six of the target beliefs and the dominant predictor in four (young earth, vaccines, evolution, GMOs). Finally, science as limited was a significant predictor in three target beliefs and the dominant predictor in two (homeopathy and ESP). This pattern of results is consistent with our view that the deficit model, while an important contributor to anti-science beliefs, is not clearly the best explanation, in and of itself, for anti-science beliefs, and in some areas, play an extremely limited role, if any. The key takeaway from this analysis is that scientists and science communicators, when working with an antagonistic public, need to target the salient underlying factors at work in a specific context.
In addition to looking at how specific NPSS factors function across a range of anti-science beliefs, it is potentially useful to look at the range of NPSS factors at work within specific anti-science beliefs. Six of our target beliefs were significantly predicted by only one dominant NPSS factor (global warming, evolution, astrology, cancer cures, fluoride, and ESP). Two NPSS factors were significant predictors of three anti-science beliefs (young earth, GMO’s, and homeopathy). Three NPSS factors were significant predictors in two anti-science beliefs (vaccines and moon landing). This variation in the number of NPSS factors at work in a given anti-science issue may introduce the need for scientists to seriously reflect on how best to frame messages in ways that seriously consider multiple types of anti-science concerns concurrently. Simply working to address one issue, when multiple factors are at work, is problematic. Moreover, when multiple factors are at work and only one of those dimensions is taken seriously by science communicators, publics may be justified in their belief of scientists as “out of touch” or dismissive of their concern. If a person has three serious objections to a policy proposition, and only one is “refuted,” the overall result is not particularly convincing. Additionally, it is also possible that within some target publics, the appearance of possible multiple objections to science-based positions are not all held concurrently by members of the public, but different issues are important sub-populations within a given public. A hidden challenge for science communicators, in such instances, is that attempting to address multiple negative perceptions in a particular public may be perceived as presumptuous to those who do not share all these concerns.
These insights can help scientists and science communicators target specific audiences more effectively by facilitating their ability to adopt the perspective of those who voice objections to scientific findings or consensus. If we know why a particular public holds negative perceptions about a specific scientific finding, we can tailor campaigns and messages to target them more effectively. In the following section, we briefly speculate how knowledge regarding NPSS dimensions in a relevant public might be used to tailor messages. Future research building on the themes identified in these studies should emphasize the identification of message strategies that specifically improve public acceptance and improved quality of dialogue about well-supported scientific findings, especially those that have far-reaching policy implications or impact public safety and well-being. In particular, experimental research designed to explore causal relationships between message strategies and science acceptance are recommended.
One set of implications for social-behavioral communication research following from these results is to systematically investigate message and source factors that can work to improve reception of messages designed to communicate significant scientific findings when different negative perceptions are at work.
If anti-science beliefs on a topic are related to science as onerous, individuals may disengage from important scientific discussions and debates. One potentially productive line of research could focus on investigating message strategies associated with increasing perceived personal relevance of this issue. While not tested in these studies, individuals high on the onerous dimension may be less likely to process scientific messages centrally (i.e., engage in critical evaluation of the substantive message content) because of their lack of motivation to do so (Cacioppo and Petty 1982
; Cacioppo et al. 1996
). This is a core premise of work based on the Elaboration Likelihood Model tradition. Alternatively, researchers could specifically investigate ways of providing low motivation publics with alterative heuristics or peripheral cues that support acceptance of the critical science issues, such as the use of respected or well-known individuals as advocates for the scientific views. So even if a scientific rationale is not critically engaged by the public, attitudes toward the scientific consensus may improve.
In contrast, if a given audience has concern about a scientific issue based on preexisting beliefs, such as in the case of science as heretical or limited, then other strategies seem more appropriate. For instance, publics that reject the view that humans evolved from earlier life forms, usually do so because they believe it conflicts with deeply held religious beliefs that appear to suggest otherwise. Communication researchers might specifically investigate the extent that explicit acknowledgements of respect for strongly held religious beliefs has on individual openness to entertain alternative ideas. Our speculation is that dismissing a religious belief as simple superstition, or even implying it, is likely to increase resistance. Alternatively, research has found that leveraging individuals inside the community as advocates for science who have found ways of reconciling their faith with the scientific consensus, is less likely to produce resistance, and may, over time, produce more productive dialogue and impact. See Katharine Hayhoe’s work on climate change and evangelicals (Cloud 2016
). To the extent that scientists are perceived of as dismissive of alternative frameworks for interpreting how the world works, conducting research to investigate the impact of alternative message sources that are deemed sympathetic to world views congruent with relevant beliefs held by the specific publics may be a useful strategy to reduce resistance and improve the quality of public dialogue.
In situations where anti-science beliefs are associated with views of science as corrupt, we speculate that messages specifically incorporating articulation of shared desired outcomes between scientists and community members will be more acceptable than those that do not articulate shared values or desired outcomes. Additionally, as with the other factors, science communication campaigns that leverage members of the community as the primary advocates, or community members working collaboratively with scientists, may be more impactful than messages delivered by the scientists in isolation.
Though our data suggests that some anti-science beliefs may be primarily related to a dominant negative perception of science, others may be driven by multiple negative perceptions of science. While our results suggest areas where this may be the case, our recommendation is that future scholars using these instruments, collect data on specific communities of interest around specific anti-science issues of concern. In such cases, tools such as the NPSS can facilitate evaluation of campaign effectiveness. Our data, which surveyed a broad range of people across the U.S., is not likely to accurately estimate how negative perceptions of science operate within a specific anti-science community. By and large, our sample reported low levels of endorsement of all the anti-science target beliefs, with endorsement means below the scale midpoint, except for GMOs which was only slightly above the scale midpoint. Overall, our sample does not appear to be particularly anti-science overall. Research targeting specific subpopulations may show stronger endorsement of specific beliefs, or more variation in those beliefs, and, consequently, reflect different patterns of results. However, it is unlikely that very many people are anti-science across a broad range of issues. Regardless, our protocol was not specifically designed to explain anti-science beliefs in a particular community of interest. For instance, scientists and policy advocates working to reduce community resistance to fluoride treatment of a water supply, may leverage instruments such as we have proposed to validate the underlying nature of the concerns to inform campaign strategy development.
Beyond linking underlying negative perceptions to specific beliefs, our study suggests that being college educated provides limited protection against anti-science beliefs. This implies that the larger scientific community may need to more actively work to alleviate more pressing concerns about science that may underlie multiple anti-science views beyond simply stressing the “facts” or “methods” of science. To this extent, our findings parallel those found in the research on motivated reasoning and cultural cognition (e.g., Nisbet and Goidel 2007
; Kahan et al. 2010
; Druckman and Bolsen 2011
) that have consistently found that preexisting values and perceptions bias and filter the perception of available factual information. These findings also echo the work of other recent research that speaks to growing lack of public trust in science (Achterberg et al. 2017
; Cacciatore et al. 2016
), which, in our estimation, could function as one such bias. If the public holds views that scientists have ulterior motives that compromise the veracity of their claims, other rationales, such as ideological orientation, may be more likely to guide behavior. Finally, though we emphasize the need to look at negative science perceptions in the context of specific anti-science beliefs, it is possible that there are categories of beliefs that largely reflect common patterns of negative perceptions. For instance, some of the beliefs examined in this study represent what has been termed “conspiratorial ideation” (Oliver and Wood 2014
; DiGrazia 2017
). Others may represent beliefs related to what have been called “new age philosophical” orientations, which often represent beliefs in the paranormal or supernatural (Lange et al. 2000
). Others, may simply reflect engrained beliefs driven by political or religious affiliation. Future research should focus on understanding common factors underlying clusters of beliefs that may operate similarly and respond to similar types of communication strategies.