A common theme in ad hoc risk communication links concern over vaccine safety to disbelief in evolution and to climate change skepticism, all of which are depicted as evidence of a growing “anti-science” sensibility in the public.
But is there evidence for this claim?
Skepticism toward climate change and disbelief in evolution are themselves correlated but display a complicated relationship with attitudes toward science.
Neither is associated with lack of scientific knowledge (Kahan, Peters, et al. 2012; Roos 2012). Indeed, cultural and religious divisions on these issues are even more intense among the most science literate members of the general population.
In addition, a study conducted in 2009 by the Pew Research Center found little evidence that either climate skepticism or disbelief in evolution is meaningfully connected with hostility toward science generally. On the contrary, individuals on both sides of these issues express overwhelmingly positive reactions toward science and scientists.
The CCP Vaccine Risk Perceptions study specifically examined how vaccine risk perceptions relate to climate skepticism and disbelief in evolution. It found there was no meaningful relationship.
Evolution and climate change intensely divide members of the public. The nationally representative 800-person sample of U.S. adults who participated in the survey component of the CCP study split pretty close to 50-50 on whether human activity is causing global warming and on on whether human beings themselves evolved from earlier animal species. These figures were in line with those of national public opinion polls on climate change and evolution generally.
Regardless of their positions on these issues, however, the CCP study survey respondents overwhelmingly concurred that childhood vaccine risks are low and their benefits high.
Eighty percent of those who believe in human-caused global warming, and 76% of those who do not, agreed that “the health benefits of obtaining generally recommended childhood vaccinations outweigh the health risks.”
Among those who believe and disbelieve in evolution, the proportions who agreed that vaccine benefits outweigh risks was 80% to 77%. In both cases the differences were smaller than the survey margin of error.
Religiosity and science comprehension both play an important role in disputes over global warming and evolution.
But neither has any meaningful impact on perceptions of vaccine risks, which are viewed as low relative to their benefits by overwhelming margins among religious and nonreligious individuals regardless of their level of science comprehension.
A variant of the “anti-science” theme asserts that fear of vaccines is correlated with cultural or ideological outlooks.
There isn’t agreement, however, about what the correlation is: some commentators attribute hostility to vaccination to “the conservative don’t-tread-on-me crowd that distrusts all government recommendations,” while others cite it as the “liberal” “anti-science” analog to conservative skepticism on climate change.
The CCP study found that neither variant is grounded in fact. There was no meaningful relationship between political outlooks and vaccine-risk perceptions. On the contrary, Democrats as well as Republicans saw vaccine risks as low and vaccine benefits as high.
The notion that climate change skepticism, disbelief in evolution, and fear of vaccines are manifestations of a creeping “anti-science” sensibility in U.S. public opinion is thus not a fact, but rather a (trite) literary trope.
Indeed, it is an urban legend on a par with “alligators in the NYC sewer system” and “Paul is dead.”
That does not mean, however, that the “anti-science trope” is necessarily as harmless as those popular misunderstandings.
In the experimental component of the CCP study, subjects were exposed to an”op ed” that polemically derided hostility to vaccines, disbelief in evolution, and climate change skepticism as tokens of an “anti-science” orientation. Relative to subjects in a control condition, the individuals who read this communication, which was patterned on real-world commentaries employing the “anti-science trope,” did show signs of polarizing along cultural lines akin to those that divide ordinary members of the public on climate change and other issues.
So while the “anti-science trope” currently lacks any empirical foundation, asserting it anyway might well help to foster the sorts of public divisions that inform other issues in which dueling partisans hurl the “anti-science” epithet at one another.
Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).
Roos, J.M. Measuring science or religion? A measurement analysis of the national science foundation sponsored science literacy scale 2006–2010. Public Understanding of Science (2012), advance on-line publication DOI: 10.1177/0963662512464318.
For more information on the experimental component of the CCP study, click here.
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To download the CCP report “Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication,” click here.