Fingers in ears
Science sceptics are good at cherry-picking information that suits their arguments and dismissing as unimportant evidence to the contraryiStock

Conspiracy theorists, people against vaccination and those who believe climate change is not happening are typically interested in science, but process information in a different way, psychologists say.

Science sceptics tend to follow a particular argument or message by cherry-picking the information that supports their established view, psychologist Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland, Australia, argues in a paper presented at a meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Antonio, US.

Hornsey calls this process "thinking like a lawyer", paying attention and giving weight to particular pieces of information to support the argument that they want to be true.

Those statements that counteract a science sceptic's established view are not dismissed as false, but simply have less importance attached to them, said Troy Campbell of the University of Oregon in the US, author of a related study.

"In our research, we find that people treat facts as relevant more when the facts tend to support their opinions," said Campbell. "When the facts are against their opinions, they don't necessarily deny the facts, but they say the facts are less relevant."

While science sceptics sift through information, they will select facts that best allow them to support or maintain their identity, according to another study author at the conference, Dan Kahan of Yale University in the US.

This process can be seen as "a state of disorientation that is pretty symmetric across the political spectrum", Kahan said. "Where there is conflict over societal risks – from climate change to nuclear-power safety to impacts of gun control laws, both sides invoke the mantel of science."

Engaging a sceptic

Simply presenting people with scientifically backed statements does little to change a science sceptic's mind.

"We find that people will take flight from facts to protect all kinds of belief, including their religious belief, their political beliefs and even simple personal beliefs such as whether they are good at choosing a web browser," said Campbell.

As a result, the solution has to be more nuanced than simply presenting scientific evidence and hoping for the best.

"Rather than taking on people's surface attitudes directly, tailor the message so that it aligns with their motivation. So with climate sceptics, for example, you find out what they can agree on and then frame climate messages to align with these."