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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

A new framework for to combat antiscience attitudes: What businesses need to know

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Spike Lee

From climate change denial to anti-vaxxers to flat earthers, “antiscience” rhetoric has been strong over the past decade. A recent paper by Rotman School of Management associate professor Spike Lee and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)—‑ titled “Why are people antiscience, and what can we do about it?” — offers a new framework for understanding the sources of “antiscience attitudes,” and offers solutions for combating them.

Lee says the subject first appealed to him during the era of “fake news” that preceded the 2016 American presidential election, as well as the pro-democracy movement emerging from his native Hong Kong at the time, but was furthered by the politicization of science during the pandemic.

“Antiscience attitudes often are correlated with political orientation,” he said. “I feel like the pandemic was the perfect example; it was supposed to be a public health thing, but it turned into this heavily politicized thing.”

Lee says that he, like many, felt both a deep sense of frustration with — and a deep sense of curiosity in — those who refused to follow potentially life-saving public health guidelines. As long as there has been science, there have been antiscience attitudes, Lee says, pointing to the seventeenth century Italian scientist Galileo — who received life imprisonment for claiming the earth orbited the sun — as an example. And today’s antiscience attitudes have a lot in common with those seen throughout history, but with a modern twist.

“The new part is that people are not just against particular scientific findings when it so happens to conflict with their personal beliefs,” he said. “Now there’s this movement where people are actively hating science as an enterprise.”

Lee offers a new framework for understanding – and counteracting - four key drivers of antiscience attitudes.

The source

The first potential avenue for antiscience attitudes is the source of the message itself — typically the scientist or institution that arrives at a scientific discovery. According to the research, messengers who are perceived to lack the necessary expertise, demonstrate bias, or appear untrustworthy are likely to have their message ignored or rejected, regardless of its contents.

“That’s why the influence of politics is so important,” said Lee. “In many strongly conservative communities, scientists are portrayed as biased — they have their own interests, they hold progressive values that are at odds with conservatives — so [the general population] come in with the idea that scientists are untrustworthy.”

To counter antiscience attitudes based on the source, Lee says it’s important to highlight their experience and expertise in the field, show external validation, and demonstrate the scientific process that was undertaken, in laymen’s terms, whenever possible.

The recipient

Scientific messaging are often also rejected when they challenge the recipient’s previously held beliefs — especially when those beliefs are core to their social identity as part of a group, and even more so when that group has been underrepresented or exploited by prior scientific work.

That could include members of political and religious groups, as well as historically marginalized communities. For example, the Black community was widely hesitant to trust COVID vaccines at first in light of historical injustices, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study — wherein black American men where unwittingly infected with syphilis in the name of scientific research.

Lee says key to establishing trust with this category of skeptics is activating a sense of shared identity and enlisting trusted community members as messengers.

That strategy ultimately proved successful during the vaccine rollout, when government agencies enlisted black community members in a door-knocking campaign to help dispel vaccination disinformation.

This dynamic also presents an opportunity for employers, says Lee, as studies show they are more trusted by their staff than politicians, the media, non-government institutions and the business community at large. “If you want more people to be receptive to [scientific information], going the route of employers seems like a potentially useful one,” he said.

The message

While the context and delivery of a message can breed antiscience attitudes, discoveries can also be rejected based on a message's content. That is especially true, according to Lee, when the message contradicts previous scientific research, which was evident during the pandemic as public health recommendations evolved.  

Lee says it’s important to lean into the skepticism, rather than ignore it. He explains that it’s important to acknowledge practical reasons why the message might appear contradictory, to warn audiences that information could change over time, and to explicitly call out attempts to distort facts.  

Simply introducing the potential for deception puts audiences on high alert and can even help protect against new forms of misinformation that they hadn’t been prepared for, Lee adds.  

“People generally don’t think of themselves as being susceptible to misinformation, but think others are,” he said. “’Pre-bunking’ is the idea of educating people that misinformation exists, and what it looks like, to give people a taste of the misinformation, and warn them that in this domain of knowledge this is the kind of misinformation that’s out there.”

The tone

Scientific information can also be rejected based on its method of delivery. Scientists aren’t always the best at communicating their findings in a way that resonates with lay audiences, and in the modern era they now find themselves up against a sophisticated disinformation machine finely tuned to strike a chord with specific audiences.

To combat antiscience attitudes, Lee says it’s important to tailor the delivery to the audience. For example, he says those who reject climate science may be open to adopting greener solutions when it’s framed in the context of saving on energy costs.

“People respond to different styles of delivering scientific information, so when you deliver new information, you want to ask yourself ‘who is my target audience, and what styles are known to work better with this audience?’” says Lee.

Recent events have proven that scientific discovery alone often isn’t enough to influence public opinion, especially when those discoveries come from an untrusted source, are directed at a skeptical audience, contradict prior understanding, or aren’t delivered in a way that resonates. Through this body of research Lee hopes to provide the scientific community with proven strategies to effectively get their message across.

Spike Lee is a cross-appointed associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Toronto.