Science, politics, and vaccine acceptance

As the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed across the country, new research out of the Department of Philosophy shows that knowledge about the nature of science can combat political biases.

Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of Philosophy in the School of Arts & Sciences, had an idea about the nature of science and its relationship to political affiliation and scientific acceptance. So, with his collaborators, he tested it.

Closeup of a syringe with a droplet at the tip of the needle reflecting the American flag pattern.

One of those collaborators is Jesse Hamilton, a first-year doctoral student in philosophy. Weisberg and Hamilton explain that previous research showed that knowing facts about science knowledge, such as the relative mass of an electron or the properties of noble gases, does not have a major influence on acceptance of politically controversial scientific theories, including anthropogenic climate change, evolution, and vaccine safety. That research showed that party affiliation was more influential than knowing science facts when it came to a person’s views on these topics.

“So, for example, self-identified conservatives who know more science facts tend to align more with other conservatives than with the scientists,” Hamilton explains. “This is somewhat counterintuitive because we’d expect that greater science knowledge would be correlated with acceptance of well-supported scientific theories. We hypothesized that if people understood the nature of science, rather than simply knowing science facts, they would be more likely to accept the scientific consensus regardless of their political affiliations.”

And that’s what their research found. Weisberg, Hamilton, and two other researchers, published their findings in Public Understanding of Science. A survey of 1,500 Americans of diverse political and religious backgrounds showed that the more people know about how science works, they less likely they are to dismiss science along political lines. This held true, Weisberg says, regardless of individual’s level of religiosity or political identification.

“With the COVID-19 vaccine on everyone’s mind, the top-line takeaway is that it really behooves everybody involved to clearly explain why and how they know what they know,” says Weisberg. “People are wondering how the vaccine was developed in under a year. The scientific and medical community needs to treat this as an important question.”

This story is by Lauren Rebecca Thacker. Read more at Omnia.