The Psychology of Science Denial

From vaccines to climate change to evolution, there are numerous hot-button issues in the world of science—relatively speaking, of course. When it comes to actual scientists, there’s a near-universal consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism, the earth’s temperature is rising, and humans share a common ancestor with primates. However, despite overwhelming evidence, among the general public, these topics are a contentious source of eternal debate.

While it might be gratifying to write off science naysayers as simply ignorant, the problem is actually much more complex. A combination of psychological and physiological factors actually make it quite difficult for humans to reason clearly and at the level needed for scientific inquiry. From social influences to primal regions of the brain, there are several reasons why science denial is so prevalent in our society.

The Influence of Logic and Emotion

When many people think of “science,” it brings up thoughts of sterile and impartial logic. However, this isn’t quite the case—when humans reason, there is very much an element of emotion at play, and this occurs for two reasons.

For one, science does not take place in a vacuum. While it may be concerned with understanding the physical, there is a distinctly social context to the practice—scientific information has an impact on society, for better or worse. Because of this, we inevitably begin to ascribe moral judgments to this information. Put simply, scientific reason cannot be completely separated from emotion because it has such a significant impact on our lives. We have a vested interest in what science uncovers about the world.

The Tricks Your Brain Plays

However, emotion permeates reason at a much more basic, cerebral level as well. When it comes to experiencing feelings, the limbic system of the brain is largely responsible. Some experts refer to this as the “lizard brain” because it developed very early during human evolution and is similar to the neurological makeup of a reptile.

Conversely, the prefrontal cortex is in charge of reasoning and the regulation of emotion. As a brain area, it is a much more recent product of evolution and doesn’t fully develop in individuals until late adolescence or early adulthood. While it would be misleading to say that these two brain areas are at war with one another, they do serve very different functions and can sometimes conflict. When this happens, the limbic system has the upper hand.

Studies have shown that emotions can be activated in the limbic system within a split-second of being exposed to a stimulus—much quicker than we can consciously perceive. On the other hand, logic and reason occur later and more slowly. While it’s still an invaluable skill for humans to possess, by the time our prefrontal cortexes have begun the process, it could potentially already be biased by emotional information from the limbic system.

The Impact on Understanding Science

So what does this have to do with science denial? Everything, actually. Science is a framework that hinges on unbiased objectivity, and when that is compromised, it becomes largely worthless. If a person examines evidence with a preconceived negativity (or, just as importantly—positivity) for a subject, their ability to reason without bias is in trouble.

However, the psychology of science denial is not just about emotion, it’s about perception and belief too. One neurological drawback to the scientific method is that it often leads to counterintuitive conclusions. Take the earth, for example. Going on visual cues alone, it very much looks like the sun revolves around us, and because of this, scientists had a hard time convincing people that the exact opposite was true in the early days of this hypothesis. Sensory information is not always reliable, but our brains are hardwired to only accept what we perceive as true. While this may have been beneficial for survival in the earliest days of humanity, it causes problems when perception conflicts with reality. 

And it’s not just our five senses that are conspiring against our pursuit for knowledge—our beliefs can be culprits too. Numerous psychological studies have shown that we are much more likely to reject information that contradicts the things we already believe. Whether it’s political, religious, or cultural in nature doesn’t seem to matter—if we “know” something to be true, it’s difficult to convince us otherwise.

So, while we should continue to push back against faulty and self-serving denials of science, it’s important that we keep in mind this is not a matter of intelligence (or lack thereof). Rather, it’s about the challenges of working within a system that frequently runs counter to our natural impulses and the things we believe to be true.