People with more extreme attitudes towards science have self-confidence in their understanding of science, even if this is not justified

Cristina Fonseca, Jonathan Pettitt, Alison Woollard, Adam Rutherford, Wendy Bickmore, Anne Ferguson-Smith, Laurence D. Hurst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (SciVal)


People differ greatly in their attitudes towards well-evidenced science. What characterises this variation? Here, we consider this issue in the context of genetics and allied sciences. While most prior research has focused on the relationship between attitude to science and what people know about it, recent evidence suggests that individuals with strongly negative attitudes towards specific genetic technologies (genetic modification (GM) technology and vaccines) commonly do not objectively understand the science, but, importantly, believe that they do. Here, using data from a probability survey of United Kingdom adults, we extend this prior work in 2 regards. First, we ask whether people with more extreme attitudes, be they positive or negative, are more likely to believe that they understand the science. Second, as negativity to genetics is commonly framed around issues particular to specific technologies, we ask whether attitudinal trends are contingent on specification of technology. We find (1) that individuals with strongly positive or negative attitudes towards genetics more strongly believe that they well understand the science; but (2) only for those most positive to the science is this self-confidence warranted; and (3) these effects are not contingent on specification of any particular technologies. These results suggest a potentially general model to explain why people differ in their degree of acceptance or rejection of science, this being that the more someone believes they understand the science, the more confident they will be in their acceptance or rejection of it. While there are more technology nonspecific opponents who also oppose GM technology than expected by chance, most GM opponents fit a different demographic. For the most part, opposition to GM appears not to reflect a smokescreen concealing a broader underlying negativity.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3001915
JournalPLOS Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jan 2023


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