Bridging the Great Science Divide

April 28, 2022 Bekah Wright

Just as Gale Sinatra handed her publisher the first draft of her book, COVID-19 struck. Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It would turn out to be more timely than she ever imagined.

Sinatra, an expert on climate science education, has spent decades studying science learning. As COVID-19 stoked science resistance and fears, the issue feels even more urgent. Here, the Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education at the USC Rossier School of Education explains the divide between belief and doubt, answering the question: Is it possible for us to come together on this pressing issue?

Is there more science resistance now because of the climate crisis and COVID-19?

Science denial has been around since Galileo, who was imprisoned for suggesting the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. It may just seem more extreme now because social media spreads mis- and disinformation so rapidly. We like to say that a lie goes all the way around the world while the truth is still trying to get its pants on.

Misinformation is very seductive—whether it’s interesting, odd, curious or humorous—so people share it. We know from the recent testimony of a former Facebook employee that if people click on misinformation because it’s intriguing, interesting or fits their point of view, algorithms will spread it more quickly than what might be a boring truth.

Being in social media bubbles, we have the same information—some scientifically accurate, some not—reinforced over and over again.

What about misinformation spread by someone considered a legitimate authority?

During the pandemic, we witnessed the messy business of science changing in real time in response to rapidly evolving information. At first, we were washing groceries, then told that wasn’t necessary. Initially, we weren’t wearing masks then later were told we had to. This created a lot of confusion and mistrust. People thought scientists were changing their minds. In actuality, new information was becoming available, providing evidence that changed their thinking.

Are climate change skeptics having a change of heart?

I’ve been doing climate change education research for over 15 years and have seen an active shift in the public’s awareness of the climate crisis as well as reasons to believe there’s hope for massive change.

The youth activism movement, including USC students, is heavily interested in climate change and mitigating impact. We’re seeing universities and monetary funds divesting from their investments in fossil fuels, a noteworthy economic shift. Political interest is also shifting.

How can trust be restored?

The science behind vaccines is so politicized, it led to a lot of distrust. There shouldn’t be anything political about COVID-19. Viruses don’t know if you’re conservative or liberal.

Everyone should look for multiple sources of information. I would never trust a single scientist or report. Everyone can make mistakes. You want a broad consensus. One of the facts that persuaded people early on to take the vaccine was that 97% of doctors chose to be vaccinated—not just their family physician or a doctor on TV, but the vast majority of physicians.

Trust is built by listening to people, being empathetic about legitimate concerns and referring them to reliable, trusted sources with accurate information.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.