Scientific literacy undermines conspiracy beliefs

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A series of ten studies has shown that scientific literacy reduces belief in conspiracy theories. Improving people’s ability to assess evidence through increased scientific literacy makes them less likely to endorse such beliefs. The key aspects of scientific literacy contributing to this effect are scientific knowledge and scientific reasoning. The research findings were published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Conspiracy beliefs are beliefs that certain events or situations are the result of secret plots by powerful groups or individuals, rather than by chance or acknowledged causes. In these narratives, the powerful groups are often portrayed as having malevolent intentions towards the general population.

For instance, some people believe the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic was deliberately orchestrated, or that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are harmful while authorities conceal this information. Others think space aliens visit Earth, with governments hiding this fact from the public. Numerous similar conspiracy beliefs exist, and studies suggest that about 75% of the U.S. population either believes in conspiracies or knows someone who does.

While some conspiracy beliefs are rather harmless, other types of such beliefs can cause harm to the society (e.g. by making believers refuse vaccinations and thus prolonging epidemics) or the individual (e.g. refusing a medical treatment for a disease although effective cures are available). That is why scientists intensely study factors that affect the likelihood that individuals will endorse conspiracy beliefs.

One such potential factor is scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is a combination of factual knowledge of scientific topics combined with critical thinking ability that comes from the understanding of scientific reasoning. These two components of scientific literacy, combined together, might allow people to recognize incorrect evidence and flawed reasoning promoted by conspiracy theories.

Study authors Nathan Allred and Lisa E. Bolton wanted to test whether scientific literacy really makes a person less prone to endorse conspiracy beliefs. They hypothesized that educational interventions that improve scientific knowledge or reasoning will undermine conspiracy beliefs and that this will happen because people will become better able to evaluate evidence. They conducted a series of studies.

In their first analysis, these researchers examined Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scientific literacy data from 79 countries, pairing it with data on Google searches about conspiracy topics in those countries and conspiracy belief assessments provided by the YouGov Cambridge Globalism study. Results showed that conspiracy beliefs and Google searches about conspiracies tended to be lower in countries where average PISA scientific literacy scores were better.

Another study by these researchers involved 107 participants from four community events focused on science and COVID-19 skepticism. A survey of 97 Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers yielded similar results: individuals with higher scientific knowledge were less likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs.

Next, the researchers conducted two experiments with participants recruited via Prolific. In one experiment, participants watched either a video on a scientific topic relevant to a conspiracy theory or a video on a historical topic, then reported their conspiracy beliefs. The topic was nuclear energy, with the conspiracy belief being that cancer rates increased after the first nuclear reactor was built.

The second experiment had a similar setup but focused on improving scientific reasoning through a video about the difference between correlation and causation. Both experiments demonstrated that enhancing scientific knowledge and reasoning reduced conspiracy beliefs. Participants who watched videos on nuclear energy or scientific reasoning reported lower conspiracy beliefs than those who watched videos on historical topics.

Further experiments confirmed these findings, showing that scientific literacy reduces conspiracy beliefs particularly when participants engage in reasoning about the topic. If participants were simply asked to create a story about the topic without reasoning, scientific literacy did not significantly impact conspiracy beliefs. Another study indicated that the link between scientific literacy and reduced conspiracy beliefs was strongest when the evidence about the belief topic was weak.

“Across 10 studies, we find that scientific literacy undermines conspiracy beliefs and conspiracy-related behavior. We observe this relationship in international secondary data (study 1A), a high-conspiracy sample (study 1B), and a highly educated sample (study 1C) of consumers. We also propose and find evidence via both measurement (study 2A) and manipulation (via short video interventions; studies 2B and 2C) for the role of each dimension of scientific literacy—scientific knowledge and reasoning—and their impact on evidence evaluation and conspiracy beliefs. Specifically, we theorize and find that scientific literacy improves evidence evaluation (studies 2B and 2C; supplemental study); hence, the effect of scientific literacy emerges when evidence is weaker (study 3A) and emphasizes reasoning (rather than narration) (study 3B).”, study authors concluded.

“Lastly, we demonstrated robustness by testing the effectiveness of a scientific literacy intervention on incentive-aligned choice over time (study 4A), for established and novel conspiracy beliefs among consumers more versus less prone to conspiracy belief (study 4B), and in the US population using state-level data regarding vaccination behavior (study 4C). Together, these findings (using individual, state, and international data) shed light on how scientific literacy undermines conspiracy beliefs while demonstrating important consequences for individuals, business, and society.”

This series of studies makes a compelling case for the impact of scientific literacy on reducing conspiracy beliefs. However, most of the studies relied on self-reports about conspiracy beliefs in a situation where the study authors’ goals were likely transparent to participants, leaving some room for reporting bias to affect the results.

The research, “Conspiracy Beliefs and Consumption: The Role of Scientific Literacy,” was authored by Nathan Allred and Lisa E. Bolton.

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