Pseudosciences: who and how many believe in farce and deception

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Pseudosciences: who and how many believe in telepathy, contact with extraterrestrials or that emotions cause cancer

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Hugo Viciana, Sevilla University and Aníbal M. Astobiza, University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

Are we well immunized as a society against pseudoscientific hoaxes?

A couple of months ago we conducted a survey where we included a measure of acceptance of pseudoscientific beliefs developed by the researcher and pseudoscience specialist Angelo Fasce. From the panel on-line of IMOP Insights (pending publication), we asked the adult population in Spain to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with a list of statements related to hoaxes or pseudoscientific nonsense.

Claims could range from science validating the existence of telepathic abilities or negative emotions being “proven” to cause cancer, to archaeologists recording encounters between ancient civilizations and alien beings.

In aggregate, a higher average score in these beliefs usually means a more willing disposition to accept hoaxes and pseudoscientific beliefs.

Most of the population accepts the possibility of pseudoscientific ideas

The survey data suggest that today the typical response in Spain to pseudoscientific hoaxes is one of agnosticism: they are neither embraced nor rejected outright, but rather ignorance is acknowledged. So is the glass half full?

There is reason to think twice that this is really the case. Not only does a majority portion of the Spanish adult population show that it is open to considering pseudoscientific ideas as plausible, but, in some cases, a very high percentage of citizens directly embraces these beliefs, as can be seen in detail in this graph:

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Results of the test. Author provided

Having university studies does not mean believing less in pseudosciences

How can it be that 30% of adults in Spain agree that telepathy has been scientifically proven? Or that almost a quarter of those surveyed affirm that there is proven evidence of prehistoric contacts with alien civilizations?

In our survey we included the usual demographic variables (age, gender, educational level). We breathe a sigh of relief when we see that educational level slightly predicts lower susceptibility to pseudoscientific ideas. But, although statistically significant, the correlation between having completed university studies and embracing pseudoscientific ideas was small. Reason for congratulation or rather for dismay? After all, a higher education of several years does not seem to provide high immunity against intellectual impostures.

In contrast, age (belonging to an older generation) was approximately as predictive as educational level: at the same educational level, an older generation seems more susceptible to accepting these beliefs.

How can it be that university education, to which our society and our young people dedicate so much effort, is not a highly protective factor against pseudoscientific nonsense?

How much do we know about science

In our study we also included a measure of citizen understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge. That is, we measure how familiar adults residing in Spain are with the philosophy of scientific knowledge and the nature of science as an activity, including measures of whether people understand that a result can be scientific even if it is not absolutely conclusive, or whether, for For example, people understand what Peer Review.

High measures of familiarity with the philosophy of scientific knowledge were a clear predictor of the rejection of pseudoscientific hoaxes. In fact, in our model, university education was only protective against pseudoscientific hoaxes when it had served to transmit a minimum of understanding in the philosophy of science.

Otherwise, people with university education are no less or more reluctant than the rest to embrace pseudoscientific ideas.

This suggests that in Spain university training It is not serving to convey a minimal philosophical understanding of the nature of science in many cases.

Risk factor's

In our survey, being a woman also appeared as a risk factor for accepting pseudoscientific beliefs. This is the case even when controlling for other variables. That is, at the same educational level or the same level of familiarity with the philosophy of science, on average women showed a somewhat greater susceptibility. We don't know why this is so and the proverbial “further studies should examine this issue” applies here. However, since this result has been replicated in other surveys and can be key to facing situations of social vulnerability, we believe that it is worth paying attention to the gender dimension in this issue.

As is usual, these average differences are modest. In no case does it mean that one sex is more gullible than the other (In other surveys, men They tend to appear more willing to embrace conspiracy theories, no matter how absurd they may be.)

One possibility highlighted above is that women's greater empathy on average makes them more susceptible. Another, more disturbing possibility is that many of these beliefs have been manufactured or (like the strain of a virus that adapts to its host) have co-evolved to gain followers more easily among women.

Other surveys show, for example, that in our society receptivity to alternative therapies (a particularly pernicious form of pseudoscience in some cases) is more widespread among women.

The path to a less gullible society

For a few years now, our country has had a, in some aspects, enviable surveillance and detection system for the flu epidemic. Likewise, covid-19 has highlighted the need to have early detection systems for pathogens to prevent possible explosive outbreaks and to be able to act in time to contain their spread. The experience and results of some studies They would advise us to take seriously the need to detect, track and model the spread of pseudoscientific hoaxes among the population.

Understanding what makes certain pernicious ideas spread and what makes some groups more vulnerable would strengthen our immunity to pseudoscience and its most pernicious consequences.

A less gullible society is a society less susceptible to misinformation and harmful practices, and is more likely to make informed decisions about its health, the environment and other important issues.The Conversation

Hugo Viciana, Research professor at the University of Seville, specialist in philosophy and cognitive sciences, Sevilla University and Aníbal M. Astobiza, Postdoctoral Researcher, specialized in cognitive sciences and applied ethics, University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

This article was originally published in The Conversation. read the original.