Research Article: Why do scientists disagree? Explaining and improving measures of the perceived causes of scientific disputes

Date Published: February 7, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Nathan F. Dieckmann, Branden B. Johnson, Daniel Wisneski.


There has been increasing attention to understanding how laypeople explain disagreements among scientists. In this article, we evaluate the factorial validity and scale/item functioning of a Science Dispute Reasons scale (Study 1) and test specific hypotheses about demographic, individual difference, and topic-related variables that may explain why some reasons are perceived to be more likely than others (Study 2). The final scale included 17 items grouped into three reason factors (Process/Competence, Interests/Values, and Complexity/Uncertainty), which is largely consistent with previous research. We find a mixed pattern of global and specific impacts on reason likelihood ratings from a range of variables including political ideology and conspiracist ideation (primary mediated through perceived credibility of science), science knowledge, and topic-related variables such as knowledge of and care about the dispute in question. Overall, science dispute reasons appear to be more strongly driven by attitudes and worldviews as opposed to objective knowledge and skills. These findings represent progress in understanding lay perceptions of the causes of scientific disputes, although much work remains. We discuss the implications of this work and directions for future research.

Partial Text

There has been increasing attention to understanding how laypeople explain disagreements among scientists. These efforts have been driven by concerns that lay perceptions of scientific disputes might undermine scientific credibility, furthering misunderstanding of how science operates and/or leading people to ignore scientific advice (e.g., [1, 2, 3, 4]). As we detail below, the literature so far has not yet converged on the reasons offered by laypeople for intra-science disputes, and even less on which competencies, beliefs, attitudes and demographic factors are associated with favoring one reason over another.

In Study 2, we replicated the psychometric findings from Study 1 and tested our hypotheses regarding potential explanatory factors outlined earlier (see Fig 1). We used two new dispute topics (Salt intake and Nanotechnology) designed to vary along the familiar to emergent/unknown continuum. We expected controversies regarding salt intake to be relatively familiar and mundane to participants, and therefore, less likely to activate worldview-consistent but perhaps still to elicit conspiratorial thinking (e.g., if they expect profit motives to drive some scientists). Several studies have examined public perceptions of nanotechnology and have found that the public tends to have relatively positive attitudes toward nanotechnology even when having relatively little knowledge about the topic and not necessarily trusting government agencies to manage risks [36, 37]. Several reviews of this literature have concluded that public perceptions of nanotechnology might be driven more by trust, general views of science, religiosity, and worldviews [38, 39], implying that political ideology and, potentially, conspiracist ideation, might have stronger relations to Science Dispute Reasons in the nanotechnology than for dietary salt.




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