A Top Scientist Ignores the Science of Why People Deny Science

In the world of evolutionary science, you don’t get much more prominent than Richard Leakey (pictured here). An anthropologist and conservationist, he’s the son of the archaeologist couple Louis and Mary Leakey, famed for their human origins research in Africa. Richard Leakey is credited with multiple major discoveries, including his team’s unearthing of Turkana Boy, a 1.5 million year old fossil skeleton thought to be either an example of Homo erectus or of Homo ergaster.

None of this, however, necessarily means that Leakey is an expert in the communication of science, or on why people deny science in key areas. In fact, recent remarks by this distinguished researcher show just how far we still have to go before even some scientists accept the growing body of research on the subject of…why people deny science.

According to a recent AP story, Leakey predicted that within the next 15 to 30 years, scientific research will advance so much that there will be no more doubters of evolution. At this point, Leakey reportedly said, the evidence will be so vast that “even the skeptics can accept it.”

Leakey went on to forecast that in such a world, we’ll be better at using science to solve our problems: “If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it's solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive, then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”

It’s a stirring vision, and kind of reminds you of John Lennon’s Imagine. But I’m nonetheless floored to find that in this day and age, a scientist as prominent as Leakey can sound so optimistic about being able to “persuade people on the evidence.” For with such remarks–and of course, this is assuming that the AP is quoting him accurately–Leakey seems to ignore everything we actually know about why people reject facts and reason.

Leakey seriously suggests that if there’s only more scientific evidence (presumably about human origins?), evolution denial will go away. This flies in the face of everything we know about evolution denial—which says that it’s all about emotion and group identity, not about data. Furthermore, it flies in the face of everything we know about science communication and persuasion–which suggests that when confronted with new evidence, evolution deniers will double down on their false beliefs, especially if these deniers are intelligent and sophisticated.

Much of this research is summarized in my new book The Republican Brain; it was also the subject of a recent colloquium at none other than the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, entitled “The Science of Science Communication.” In fact, ironically, just this week Nature Climate Change published a study confirming all this by Yale’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues. (It’s a study that I discussed last year when it was in working paper format.)

On a scientifically contested issues that plays out in a way much similar to evolution—climate change—Kahan and colleagues find that more scientific literacy actually polarizes people over global warming. It drives them apart, rather than bringing them together.

More specifically, what Kahan et al found is that in the group of people who tend to deny global warming—so-called “hierarchical individualists”—increasing scientific literacy led to less concern about the issue. However, in the group of people who tend to accept global warming—so-called “egalitarian communitarians”—increasing scientific literacy had the opposite effect. It led to more concern. This is yet another instance of the so-called “smart idiot effect,” which I’ve often discussed.

Human evolution is not precisely the same as human-induced global warming; people deny these two scientific facts for different reasons. But there is every reason to think that on evolution, the same “smart idiot” effect occurs. After all, “intelligent design” proponents and “creation science” proponents include a number of science Ph.D.s—Ph.D.s who just happened to be conservative Christians to boot.

Does Richard Leakey really think that a few more fossil discoveries are going to change these people’s minds?

The irony here is that evolutionary science itself helps to explain…why people deny evolutionary science! After all, as the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, evolution built us as creatures who need to belong to a group or tribe, and who bind their tribes together based on a shared understanding of the world. The denial of evolution is fundamentally about reaffirming a shared identity among conservative Christians or, increasingly, conservative Muslims. It is about group belonging, not data.

What’s more, evolution also built us as creatures whose emotions powerfully sculpt reasoning. The emotional systems fire first, and they can often drive the calmer and slower reasoning systems; this is the thesis that Daniel Kahneman has made so famous in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow. What this means is that anti-evolutionists’ emotions are going to drive their responses to any facts Leakey can lay before them. And then, through a process of motivated reasoning, they’re likely to come up with reasons to deny the evidence, and thereby, support the tribe.

So in sum, evolution helps explain why people don’t believe in evolution. But then how do you explain evolutionary scientists like Leakey, who seem somehow not to credit these fairly obvious ramifications of evolutionary theory itself for how people process information?

My only answer is that scientists, too, can wear blinders sometimes. And this particular reality can be a rather painful one for those who cleave to the old Enlightenment idea that reason swoops in and saves the day.

For the Leakeys of the world, then, the message needs to be this: Reason can still save the day; it just it won’t necessarily be in the way that you hope for. It won’t be because facts suddenly start to work to change the minds of science deniers. Rather, it will be because facts let us understand how the minds of science deniers work in the first place.

That’s a different picture than the old Enlightenment vision, but not a bleak one—because human beings can still change, and human societies can still improve. But reason alone, divorced from an understanding of the emotions, won’t get you there. Which is either frustrating or liberating—depending, I suppose, upon how emotionally reasonable you are.


to quote a current PhD student of mine, David Maggs, the best evidence that the information deficit model (the view that supplying more or better information will change behaviour) doesn’t work is that the extensive evidence that the info-deficit model doesn’t work doesn’t seem to have any impact.

The “science ” of why people deny science, sounds a lot different than, the “social science” of why people deny science, or the “sociology” of why people deny science, both of which are more specific and accurate.