When trust in science fosters pseudoscience

The COVID-19 pandemic and the politicization of health-prevention measures such as vaccination and mask-wearing have highlighted the need for people to accept and trust science.

But trusting science isn’t enough.

historic illustration of a phrenology map of someone’s skull.

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology finds that people who trust science are more likely to believe and disseminate false claims containing scientific references than people who do not trust science. Reminding people of the value of critical evaluation reduces belief in false claims, but reminding them of the value of trusting science does not.

“We conclude that trust in science, although desirable in many ways, makes people vulnerable to pseudoscience,” the researchers write. “These findings have implications for science broadly and the application of psychological science to curbing misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“People are susceptible to being deceived by the trappings of science,” says co-author Dolores Albarracín, the Alexandra Heyman Nash Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor and director of the Science of Science Communication Division of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. She says, for example, that COVID-19 vaccines have been the target of false claims that they contain pollutants or other dangerous ingredients. “It’s deception but it’s pretending to be scientific. So people who are taught to trust science and normally do trust science can be fooled as well.”

“What we need are people who also can be critical of information. A critical mindset can make you less gullible and make you less likely to believe in conspiracy theories.”

Read more at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.