Ask 100 politicians their opinions on climate change, and you will receive a variety of answers, from some flat out denying it; to others claiming that Earth goes through natural cycles that humans do not affect; to a few arguing that it is a very serious threat that must be immediately dealt with. Ask 100 climate scientists however, and their opinions on the cause are almost unanimous (Cook et al., 2016). Similar responses are seen regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, with the political views more varied than those scientific. In serious and trivial scientific concerns, the viewpoints of individuals outside the scientific community are more extreme and exhibit more variation than those within. But why is this the case? This piece introduces various factors that could contribute to this phenomenon.
Lack of scientific literacy
The complexities of science make it inaccessible to many, with scientific papers requiring higher levels of understanding and experience to fully comprehend. Academic language used in journals is inaccessible to the average reader, and complex scientific methods may not be properly understood. Colloquial language that may aid in understanding scientific papers is discouraged in journals, leading to further inaccessibility.
Scientific investigation can contain particular nuances familiar to those in the field, but an average viewer may be unaware and can arrive at incorrect inconclusions. For example, a study suggested that blood group A individuals react more severely (Zhao et al., 2020), whilst another found no significant relationship between blood group and severity (Barnkob et al., 2020). These contradictory results could reflect very poorly on the scientific community, often encouraging calls of falsified results and other conspiracies. However, one familiar with various statistical biases and the difficulty of studying diseases would not be surprised with these results, since sampling and understanding factors affecting severity can be less than optimal, especially in the early stages of a pandemic.
Overlooking nuances in studies can easily lead to erroneous conclusions, and these may not even be recognised. A common argument used by those opposing vaccines is that the number of cases of autism have risen (CDC, 2020), and opponents of the vaccine point out that this suspiciously correlates with the rollout of the MMR vaccine. An alternative explanation however is that autism diagnosis has improved recently, leading to better recognition of autism levels that could have existed pre-vaccinations.
A bachelor’s degree would provide sufficient understanding to comprehend the workings of scientific studies, yet in 2018 only 26.3% and 17.9% of graduates graduated with a STEM degree in the UK and USA respectively (UIS Statistics, n.d.). As such a relatively low proportion of the population, at least in the USA and UK, are qualified to at least begin to interpret results of studies and can easily arrive at the incorrect conclusion due to inexperience.
It is worth noting however that this does not mean that only experts are entitled to opinions on scientific matters. On the contrary – active discourse on scientific and especially political matters should be encouraged. However expert opinions should still be taken seriously, and emphasis should be placed on communicating expert opinions to the public. Political discourse should encourage and celebrate correct science.
Overestimation of scientific ability
The Dunning-Kruger effect appears to be an elitist phenomenon, where non-experts are told their apparent confidence in a subject is both incorrect and delusion, but in reality, it is an integral part of the human psyche. In Dunning and Kruger’s paper, analysis of four individual studies revealed that people often overestimated their abilities, with the extent of overestimation higher in those that scored lower in tests of abilities (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). This incorrect overestimation also disincentivises people to research further into the topic, as they believe their knowledge is already sufficient (Dunning, 2011). This has the potential to play in hand with the low rates of scientific qualification, thus making individuals believe they are more qualified on particular matters than the experts. This can be seen in political discourse, where overestimation of scientific knowledge leads to ill-advised policies.
A basic understanding of scientific theories and processes could make one susceptible to the wrong end of the Dunning-Kruger. It is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking one is an expert on a subject one knows only the basics of, and as explained earlier, a relatively small proportion of the population are actually more knowledgeable in particular scientific fields. During election season, political discourse increases, with non-experts weighing complex arguments, but with little of the methodical approach and thought processes displayed by politics students and experts. Similarly, during the Covid-19 pandemic, phrases and technical terms previously seen exclusively within the epidemiology and virology communities were used by the general public.
Scientific illiteracy is particular seen in the Zohnerism phenomenon. First tested by 14-year-old Nathan Zohner in 1997, Zohnerism describes the usage of scientifically accurate information in a misleading fashion. In a science fair Nathan Zohner managed to persuade 86% of his sample, fellow educated schoolchildren, to vote to ban dihydrogen monoxide, which he described as a common chemical that kills thousands yearly (Glassman, 1997). Dihydrogen monoxide is of course water, and whilst his statements were factually correct (for example thousands die yearly of drowning), Zohner presented the facts in a deliberately misleading fashion to successfully influence incorrect conclusions. Such a phenomenon could be used, intentionally or unintentionally, in political discourse to arrive at incorrect conclusions from correct science.
Inexperience in particular scientific areas can also lead to one becoming fixated on simple facts that either form a small part of the story or can mislead from the conclusion. Political rhetoric can often focus on a subset of facts, with politicians cherry-picking information to build a narrative.
A common argument against Covid-19 restrictions is the death rate, which is seen as quite low compared to other diseases. The John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center estimates the death rate (by case, as of 24/06/2021) of Peru, the country with the highest death rate per case, to be 9.4%, with the UK’s 2.7% (Mortality Analyses, n.d.). By contrast, the more severe strain of smallpox was estimated to have up to a 30% death rate (Dembek et al., 2011), and SARS (a similar coronavirus to Covid-19) was estimated to be 11%, although estimates differ by demographic (WHO, 2003). Yet the SARS endemic, although concerning, did not cause the widespread lockdowns and panic the Covid-19 virus has.
This is a classic case of simplifying topics and disregarding large amounts of information. Diseases have more than two outcomes, death, or survival, and can cause a range of symptoms that may cause hospitalisation. As a novel disease, not a lot is known about the full range of responses and symptoms, but an emerging concerning phenomenon is long Covid, with multi-organ impairment, and other symptoms, seen after the classic symptoms of Covid-19 have passed, and the individual has tested negative (Dennis et al., 2020). In addition, Covid-19 is rare amongst other diseases in its propensity to be transmitted from asymptomatic individuals (Byambasuren et al., 2020), making disease management much more difficult. These nuances support restrictions to control the impact of the disease (although of course the extent is debatable), something that is not seen when ignoring other facts.
A similar phenomenon is seen when discussing climate change, with opponents to reform and change arguing that the Earth has gone through cycles of climate. Again, this is correct, and the Earth certainly has been far more volatile in the past. However, this is ignoring the impact humans have had and are having on the environment. Research suggests that pumping huge amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere has disastrous effects. As stated previously, 90-100% of climate scientists believe humans are causing recent global warming (Cook et al., 2016). The division in opinion is further seen when only 12% of the sampled US public correctly guessed the extent of the scientific consensus (Leiserowitz et al., 2015). This is again an example of the politicization of science causing more variation in opinions than in the scientific world.
Proliferation of scientific information by the media can also easily fall victim to simplification. It is far easier to communicate the basic facts of research, especially when viewer time and readability have to be considered. Bold headlines are often all a reader reads, and so this is where the main scientific results are placed. Headlines can also be misleading, having the potential to misguide readers if consumed in isolation. However, the actual essential information is buried deeper in the news article, if they are even mentioned at all. This can leave readers misinformed on key topics, since the desire for readability and catching the eye overtakes the full dissemination of scientific information.
Simplification of facts also allows them to be more easily used for political gain. It is much easier to mass communicate basic scientific facts, instead of all the nuances. If you were for example attempting to bring about the coal mining industry into your favour, it is far easier to handwave away climate change issues by claiming that this is just the natural cycle. There does not necessarily have to be malicious intent, but scientific communication can be difficult, especially to those that may not necessarily have an interest in fully understanding scientific reports. Unfortunately, by attempting to make science readable and understandable to the masses, it is too easy to leave out important information.
Lobbying by interested parties can often lead to politicization of science, as companies and other parties attempt to manipulate science into supporting their cause. Perhaps the most famous example is Andrew Wakefield’s paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism, a paper which still has medical repercussions to this day, and undoubtedly has led to preventable loss of life and health. It is thought that Wakefield received £435,643 to attempt to show that the vaccines were dangerous (Deer, 2006), and may have applied for patents to a rival vaccine to the MMR.
This event in particular brought to the public attention the effect lobbying and influence of investors can have on scientific findings and reporting, and rightly encouraged scepticism. Conflicting interests with companies are often scrutinised, and the importance of peer review and reproducibility has been further highlighted. Whilst this can only be a good thing, it is too easy for sceptics not well versed in the topic to come to the incorrect conclusions, due to becoming caught up in potential conflicting interests. Coming back to the climate change example, just because a green energy company sponsored a study, does not automatically nullify the results, especially if the study has been peer reviewed and reproduced, and aligns with the general scientific consensus.
The Covid-19 pandemic is predicted to cost the US economy $16trillion USD, a significant proportion of their GDP (Cutler & Summers, 2020). With such a serious impact, there is often a desire to downplay the virus, and seek alternative “science” that may validate less severe restrictions that one hopes will lessen the economic impact. This conflicting interest may encourage the ignorance and misinterpretation of scientific results, whether deliberate or not, leading to a greater variation of scientific opinions.
A similar phenomenon can occur with climate change. The very fact that huge widescale change is required to negate climate change means expensive changes have to be made. To those unwillingly to focus resources for this cause, opinions that downplay the effect of climate change become very attractive.
What Can be Done?
The issue of politicization of science is caused by the lack of understanding of the nuances of science, thus requiring nuance to solve. It is neither feasible nor desirable to have a population consisting entirely of STEM graduates, yet the lack of scientific literacy is concerning, as seen by the prevalence of scientific misunderstandings and blatant anti-science.
Scientific communication must therefore improve in order to successfully communicate complex scientific studies in a form that is both easy to understand and engaging. This is no simple task, since scientists are often used to communicating results with those familiar in their field, but efforts must still be made to inform the general public of scientific studies, especially regarding those important to daily life, such as health crises or global warming.
Early scientific education can also improve in order to improve the baseline scientific knowledge. It is always a struggle to increase the scientific level that is taught in schools, since that has to be balanced with workload, stress, aptitude, and a variety of other factors. What can certainly be done however is modification to the way it is taught, with emphasis on the fact that the scientific level taught in schools barely scratches the surface of what is out there. This not only encourages young students to go out, explore and learn, but also combats the Dunning-Kruger effect, allowing individuals to understand that their knowledge, whilst substantial, is a small proportion of available information. To supplement factual knowledge, focus on critical thinking skills could allow the public to better interpret available information, allowing the population to better analyse presented facts and statistics.
Better scientific literacy can also dissuade those in power from misusing science, as a larger proportion of their audience are effectively fact checkers. Again, this can only be a good thing, as it encourages policies based on good science. The issue of scientific accuracy would be become a political point that becomes debated, bringing evidence-based points and scientific literature more into the public eye. With the increased scrutiny for scientific accuracy harsher penalties for misinformation should follow, with stricter punishments for those who are dishonest on scientific and factual matters.
The incident of Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccine has at least had the positive effect of awakening the scientific and wider community to the effect lobbying and monetary influence can have on scientific reports. Now scientific funding is inspected even closer and peer review has become even more important, not just to prevent dishonest results, but also to improve the reliability of studies. Scientific reports are now far harder to manipulate into giving particular conclusions, since papers come under intense scrutiny to avoid another Wakefield event. And just as the media broke the Andrew Wakefield story, the media can be better utilise to publish key findings in an accurate and informative manner.
Although the politicization of science occurs in many areas, it only really becomes obvious when discussing topics that can determine life or death. Through the examples of the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, as well as the MMR vaccine debacle, public opinion has been seen to differ from that of the experts. Lack of understanding of key scientific nuances, as well as perhaps overestimation of actual scientific knowledge, can lead individuals to incorrectly come to conclusions that are contrary to those arrived at by proper scientific research and inquiry. In addition, external influences such as conflicting interests and lobbying, as seen perhaps most famously in the Andrew Wakefield MMR vaccine incident, can affect the public perception of scientific findings.
Despite this, there are several things that can be done to lessen both the politicization of science, as well as its impact. Although it may be difficult to increase the general population’s scientific literacy, the appreciation for the vast amount of science and what is yet to discover can be increased. The effects of lobbying and other external influences can also be monitored, as it is already being done to some extent. So, whilst the outcome of the politicization of science may be dire, there are solutions to this issue.
Sharif Khalid is an aspiring biology student who studies Biodiversity and Conservation at UCL, UK. He has a keen interest in science communication and the perception of science in the public eye.
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