Scientific Skepticism Due to Prior Attitudes and Implicit Biases

by Jen Petrova

Why is it that certain people are skeptical about scientific facts and data? Are there any overlying trends that show that certain groups of people are more likely to be skeptical about climate change than others? Kraft, Lodge, and Taber (2015) found that religion is not the only factor that plays into climate change skepticism; political ideology and partisanship affect how people react to scientific facts as well. These authors came to the conclusion that conservatives are more likely than liberals to be scientifically skeptical due to their prior attitudes, affect-driven motivated reasoning, and biased attitude formation.

Research suggests that no matter one’s socioeconomic status, people with strong prior beliefs and opinions have a harder time trusting newfound data and facts (Lord, et al. 1979). Evidence also suggests that the framing of questions, information, or issues can influence the beliefs of an individual. For example, Republicans have a greater negative connotation of the phrase “global warming” than that of “climate change.” Reduced belief and support of scientific facts results from the way information is presented.

Most importantly, the three authors of this journal article use all of the results mentioned above to broaden into a discussion about the John Q. Public Model of Political Information Processing, a step by step model that directs people’s processing from unconscious thinking to conscious thinking in a matter of milliseconds. From this model, the authors come to the conclusion that information processing and cognitive reactions are triggered unconsciously, by both internal and external events, and that people’s attitudes and behaviors “arise from automatic, uncontrolled processes and are often set before we begin seriously “thinking” about them.” Basically, people unconsciously have judgments and biases that affect their attitudes and behaviors; in this case, stronger beliefs in conservatives suggest that they have a harder time accepting scientific evidence on climate change. However, there is still hope; in time, people can reflect and change their reactions, decisions, and views depending on their motivations and goals.

Kraft, W., Lodge, M., Taber, C., 2015. Why People “Don’t Trust the Evidence”: Motivated Reasoning and Scientific Beliefs. ANNALS, AAPSS 658, 121-133.

Lord, C., Lee, R., Lepper, M., 1979. Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37, 2098-2109.



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