It seems like we can't go more than a day without seeing a headline about the climate change "hoax" or a new finding that "proves" vaccines cause another ailment that the medical or pharmaceutical industry doesn't want you to know about.

For those who accept the scientific consensus about climate change or recognize the value of vaccines, those headlines can be frustrating. There's an assumption that the person sharing the latest anti-vaccination news is ignorant about the overall science, or about the good vaccines do, or that they don't know how to properly evaluate news reports to determine if it's a credible source or not.

But it turns out that these assumptions are most likely wrong. The people sharing them aren't ignorant of the scientific findings. In fact, according to new research described in, these people are often just as interested and curious about science as anyone; they're just picking the science that best reinforces their beliefs and sense of identity.

Cherry-picking science

Woman praying with a bible outdoors No matter their educational background, some people are more likely to pick the facts that best suit their political or religious identity. (Photo: Jesus Cervantes/Shutterstock)

Using surveys, experiments, observational studies and compiling findings from previous studies, a team of psychological researchers found that the issue with science skeptics wasn't whether or not they were exposed to information, but rather how that information was processed. Matthew Hornsey from the University of Queensland, described it as "thinking like a lawyer" to find the information that best aligns with a belief "in order to reach conclusions that they want to be true."

The result is that people who already think that humans have little or nothing to do with climate change will ignore all the studies that point to humans having some responsibility and instead latch onto one or two studies that say otherwise.

Dan Kahan of Yale University, who worked with Hornsey on the study, says that people "construe evidence in identity-congruent rather than truth-congruent ways, a state of disorientation that is pretty symmetric across the political spectrum."

"We find that people will take a flight from facts to protect all kinds of belief including their religious belief, their political beliefs, and even simple personal beliefs such as whether they are good at choosing a web browser," says Troy Campbell from the University of Oregon, who also worked on the study.

Kahan backs up that assertion. "Where there is conflict over societal risks — from climate change to nuclear-power safety to impacts of gun control laws — both sides invoke the mantel of science."

Hornsey, Campbell, Kahan and Robbie Sutton from the the University of Kent presented these findings at a symposium called "Rejection of Science: Fresh Perspectives on the Anti-Enlightenment Movement" that was held at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual convention Jan. 21. The findings are strictly preliminary and have not been peer-reviewed.

Getting (and framing) the information

The researchers suggest that instead of trying to counter the less-than-accurate studies by using studies with more weight behind them — which often results in people dismissing those latter studies as "less relevant" — that people try to determine the underlying motivations or "attitude roots" for the beliefs and approach the discussion that way.

"Rather than taking on people's surface attitudes directly, tailor the message so that it aligns with their motivation. So with climate skeptics, for example, you find out what they can agree on and then frame climate messages to align with these," Hornsey suggested.

Kahan's research has shown that levels of scientific curiosity can result in more open-minded engagement. According to the findings, people who enjoy surprising new research, even if doesn't align with their beliefs, were more open to the conclusions.

Regardless of the approach, the researchers stress the importance of making sure accurate information gets out there. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Hornsey pointed out that reliance on unaccepted science has very real consequences.

“We grew up in an era when it was just presumed that reason and evidence were the ways to understand important issues; not fear, vested interests, tradition or faith,” Hornsey said. “But the rise of climate skepticism and the anti-vaccination movement made us realize that these enlightenment values are under attack. .... Anti-vaccination movements cost lives. Climate change skepticism slows the global response to the greatest social, economic and ecological threat of our time."
Identity lies at root of science skepticism
Ignorance doesn't play a part in refuting accepted scientific claims. Rather, we pick the facts that best suit our political or religious identities.