Why people disagree with scientists

Sept. 18, 2010 at 2:00 AM
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NEW HAVEN, Conn., Sept. 18 (UPI) -- U.S. adults disagree on "scientific consensus" because they distrust experts who differ in their cultural view, researchers suggest.

Yale University law Professor Dan Kahan, University of Oklahoma political science Professor Hank Jenkins-Smith and George Washington University law Professor Donald Braman say members of the public are sharply and persistently divided on matters such as climate change in which expert scientists largely agree.

"The problem isn't that one side 'believes' science and another side 'distrusts' it," Kahan says in a statement.

Subjects were much more likely to see a scientist with elite credentials as an "expert" when he or she took a position that matched the subjects' own cultural values.

For example, people with individualistic values, with a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment, Kahan says.

The study, published in the Journal of Risk Research, finds no cultural group in the study was more likely than any other to be "getting it right" -- correctly identifying scientific consensus on different issues.

"They were all just as likely to report that 'most' scientists favor the position rejected by the National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report if the report reached a conclusion contrary to their own cultural predispositions," Kahan says.

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