Merely trusting science can lead to falling for pseudoscience, study warns

It's trendy at the moment to say 'trust the science,' but a new study warns that doing so isn't necessarily enough to avoid falling for pseudoscience claims. That's according to new research from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, which found that merely reminding someone to trust science doesn't reduce the number of false claims someone may fall for.

With the Internet, social media, and algorithms, it's easier than ever to find pseudoscience claims, as well as loads of 'evidence' to support the topic. This can make it harder for some people to sift through what is legitimate and what merely presents itself with a veneer of legitimacy while spreading misinformation.

While it's a good thing to trust the science when evaluating a topic, the new study notes that it is also important to critically evaluate the information presented to help avoid falling for false claims. Of note, the researchers found that people who are more likely to trust science were also more likely to believe and share pseudoscience if it included scientific references.

The study's co-author Dolores Albarracin described these pseudoscience claims as "deception [...] pretending to be scientific." One example are supposedly scientific studies supporting allegations that the COVID-19 vaccines contain harmful ingredients, muddying the waters while potentially driving some people who 'trust the science' to doubt what they're told.

The findings were based on experiments that gave participants two fake stories, one related to conspiracy theories about GMO products on tumors and another about a virus created as a bioweapon. Two versions of these stories were given, one that was non-scientific and one written to appear scientific.

Though people who didn't trust science weren't significantly impacted by the scientific version of the stories, those who reported trusting science were more likely to believe the fake stories and share them with others. When participants were primed to view the materials critically, however, participants were less likely to fall for them regardless of the scientific references.

The study's lead author Thomas C. O'Brien explained:

Although trust in science has important societal benefits, it is not a panacea that will protect people against misinformation. Spreaders of misinformation commonly reference science. Science communication cannot simply urge people to trust anything that references science, and instead should encourage people to learn about scientific methods and ways to critically engage with issues that involve scientific content.