Do individuals with acute attitudes toward science over-estimate their understanding of scientific matters?

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In a recent study published in PLoS Biology, researchers investigated whether individuals with extreme attitudes, negative or positive, show a greater likelihood of believing that they understand science and whether the trends in attitudes were contingent on technological specifications.

Study: People with more extreme attitudes towards science have self-confidence in their understanding of science, even if this is not justified. Image Credit: Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock
Study: People with more extreme attitudes towards science have self-confidence in their understanding of science, even if this is not justified. Image Credit: Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock


Previous studies have focused on the association between attitude toward science and individual scientific knowledge. It has been reported that persons with strong negative attitudes to particular genetic modification (GM) technologies believe that they understand science but have not shown an objective understanding of it.

The mechanisms associated with developing negative attitudes among individuals who are overconfident in their scientific knowledge are unclear.

About the study

In the present study, researchers investigated whether the attitudinal strength of extremities, negative or positive, could be estimated by subjective-type understanding and whether trends related to knowledge and attitude were contingent on specific technologies.

More than 2000 United Kingdom (UK) adult residents were surveyed and commissioned via Kantar Public. In terms of genetically modified (GM) foods and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines, individuals with the most negative attitudes believed that they understood science well but were not considered OSD (objective-subjective deficit) individuals.

The association between subjective-type understanding in ascertaining the strength of attitudes was assessed. The model proposed that psychologically confident individuals holding extreme attitudes would hold strong subjective beliefs in what they understood was correct. Two questions were asked, one regarding the hype of modern genomic science benefits and the other regarding the trust in individuals involved in modern genomic science.

The subjective scientific understanding was assessed using six questions, comprising two questions on general scientific knowledge and four questions on genetics. Scientific knowledge was evaluated based on 12 true or false questions. The model estimated that attitudinal strength must correlate positively with subjective-type understanding.

The team investigated whether the attitudinal function relating the position of attitude and subjective-type understanding is shaped resembling a U, such that a quadratic model would be a better fit for the attitudinal function compared to a linear-type model, indicative of individuals with less factual knowledge but enhanced subjective-type understanding.

Further, the model estimated that the difference between subjective-type understanding and objective scientific knowledge could be estimated based on attitudinal positions and that OSD individuals must show positive correlations with non-modular-type attitudinal positions. The covariates included were religiosity, age, educational status, and political identity.


Individuals with extreme attitudes to genetics more strongly believed that they understood science well, but self-confidence was justified only among individuals with strongly positive attitudes toward science. The findings were not contingent on the technological specifications.

The findings indicated that the greater the belief in understanding science, the greater confidence individuals would have in accepting or rejecting scientific findings. For most individuals opposing genetic modification, GM did not represent a smokescreen hiding greater negativity. The responses to the questions on trust and hype showed moderate correlations, indicating that the questions identified more generalized positions in attitude.

Elevated OSD values estimated pessimistic attitudes for the survey questions. The greater the attitudinal optimism, the greater the science knowledge and the greater the level of education among the individuals, was observed. In terms of trustability, the negative and positive extremes of attitude showed a left-wing tendency.

The findings indicated that the survey responses were not like the responses to highly politicized/polarized science and better resembled the classical trend of negative attitudes among less knowledgeable individuals. Individuals with extremes of attitudes, negative or positive, showed a tendency of greater confidence in the fact that the individuals understood scientific information. The findings were replicated for GM and MMR vaccines.

Stronger attitudes were related to stronger subjective assessment of understanding, and with an increase in subjective understanding, the extremity in attitudes (negative or positive) increased. Most of the study participants showed overconfidence in having negative OSD values, and those with greater OSD values showed a greater likelihood of holding pessimistic attitudes toward genetics.

More pessimistic attitudes were related to lesser objective knowledge than subjective knowledge of science. The trend could not be explained by covariates such as religiosity, age, educational level, and political identity. As attitudes become more negative, subjective understanding increases more than objective knowledge. The more extreme rejectors of GM technology are not the least knowledgeable; they are less knowledgeable than the extreme acceptors. OSD estimated the acceptance of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and showed that greater pessimism was related to greater OSD values.


Overall, the study findings highlighted the association between scientific knowledge, attitudes, confidence, and understanding of individuals concerning science. Several individuals believed that they understood science and related consequences, and the only thing they fear is the alternative ‘known.’  Particular technology-based doubts (pr the alternative ‘known’) might, for a few individuals, be a smokescreen hiding a more general hostility. The findings indicated an alternate method of combating science rejections, emphasizing OSD. Instead of, or along with, understanding/knowledge.

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