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Why do we argue about science? Exploring the psychological antecedents of rejection of science

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posted on 08.12.2021, 09:29 by Kerr, John Richard

Science is recognised and accepted as an important tool for understanding the world in which we live, yet some people hold beliefs that go against the best available scientific evidence. For example, many people believe human-caused climate change is not occurring, or that vaccines are ineffective and dangerous.  Previous research has investigated a range of possible drivers of this ‘rejection of science’ (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, 2013), including ignorance, distrust of scientists, and ideological motivations. The studies in this thesis extend this line of inquiry, focusing first on the role of perceptions of scientific agreement. I report experimental evidence that people base their beliefs on ‘what they think scientists think’ (Study 1). However, an analysis of longitudinal data (Study 2) suggests that our personal beliefs may also skew our perceptions of scientific agreement. While the results of Study 1 and Study 2 somewhat conflict, they do converge on one finding: perceptions of consensus alone do not fully explain rejection of science.  In the remainder of the thesis I cast a wider net, examining how ideological beliefs are linked to rejection of science. Study 3 draws on social media data to reveal that political ideology is associated with rejection of science in the context of who people choose to follow on the platform Twitter. A final set of studies (4, 5, and 6) examine the role of two motivational antecedents of political ideology, Right-wing Authoritarianism (RWA) and Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), in rejection of science across five publicly debated issues. I also explore several potential mediators which might explain these effects. I report, for the first time, that RWA and SDO predict rejection of science across a range of issues and one mediator emerges as a consistent link: distrust of scientists. People who are less opposed to authoritarian (RWA) or hierarchical (SDO) values are less trusting of scientists and, in turn, more likely to reject specific scientific findings. I discuss potential strategies to address or circumvent this ideologically-motivated distrust of science.  Taken as whole, this thesis extends our understanding of why people disagree with an established scientific consensus on socially important issues. Knowledge of the scientific consensus matters, but our deeper beliefs about society can also draw us closer to, or push us further from evidence-based conclusions.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970117 Expanding Knowledge in Psychology and the Cognitive sciences

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Wilson, Marc; Crawford, Matt