With little knowledge comes great confidence: Study reveals relationship between knowledge and attitudes toward science

Research shows that attitudes toward science and knowledge are correlated. Little knowledge breeds tremendous confidence.

One of the lead authors of a recent study that was published in Nature Human Behavior, Dr. Cristina Mendonça, states that "overconfidence has long been recognized as a critical problem in judgment and decision making. It occurs when individuals subjectively assess their aptitude to be higher than their objective accuracy." Previous studies have demonstrated that errors in the internal representation of correctness can have serious repercussions, but detecting these errors is by no means simple."

Overconfidence in scientific knowledge may be especially important since it may affect behavior, put public policies at risk, and even endanger health when people are unaware of their own ignorance.

In the study that was just published, researchers looked at four sizable surveys that were carried out in Europe and the United States during a 30-year period. Their goal was to create a unique confidence measure that would be indirect, independent of scales, and useful in a variety of situations.

The research team developed a ratio of incorrect to "Don't Know" answers as an overconfidence metric, arguing that incorrect answers could indicate situations where respondents believed they knew the answer but were mistaken, demonstrating overconfidence. The team used surveys with the format "True," "False," and "Don't know." Dr. Mendonça stated, "This metric has the advantages of being easy to replicate and not requiring individuals to explicitly state how confident they are or to compare themselves to others."

Two important conclusions were drawn from the data. Initially, overconfidence peaked at intermediate knowledge levels and grew more quickly than knowledge. Second, the least favourable opinions about science were likewise shown by respondents with intermediate understanding and strong confidence.

André Mata, a research author, states that "this combination of negative attitudes towards science and overconfidence is dangerous, as it can lead to the dissemination of false information and conspiracy theories, in both cases with great confidence."

The researchers employed two direct, non-comparative measurements of trust, a new survey, and a quantitative analysis of the work of other colleagues to corroborate their results. These methods supported the pattern that trust grows more quickly than knowledge.

These findings have broad ramifications and call into question accepted beliefs about effective scientific communication techniques.

Dr. Gonçalves-Sá, the organizer of the project, states that "Simplifying scientific information for broader audiences is often prioritized in science communication and outreach." Simplifying material may provide a basic level of understanding, but it may also widen the disparities in overconfidence between individuals with little to no knowledge and those who do. It's a popular belief that "a little knowledge is a harmful thing," and that may very well be true when it comes to scientific information at least."

Therefore, the study implies that initiatives to advance knowledge may have unanticipated consequences if they are not matched by an equal effort to raise awareness of how much still needs to be known. It also implies that as those with intermediate knowledge comprise the bulk of the population and generally have the least favourable attitudes about science, initiatives should be directed towards them.

However, the researchers issue a warning that surveys that severely punish incorrect responses and subjects outside of science may not be able to use their confidence metric. Additionally, while individual and cultural variations were noted, the study did not establish causation.

In summary, this research advocates for more investigation into integrative measures that are capable of precisely measuring knowledge and confidence while accounting for possible construct disparities.