Climate Change and Vaccine Denial - Why Scientific Consensus Isn't Helping and How to Fix It

The screams are growing louder and louder as researchers, scientists, and journalists just can’t understand why people refuse to believe what is “obviously true” about climate change and vaccinations. The phrase “scientific consensus” has become like a beating drum, said over and over. These two issues represent “crazy” on both sides of the aisle. Conservatives tend to deny climate change, and many liberals are out touting vaccines as conspiratorial and unsafe.

Why do so many people refuse to believe what 99% of scientists agree on, or what 99% of medical professionals agree on? Here is why that pesky 1% is putting up so much a fight…

Cognitive Dissonance - The more we don’t know, the more stubbornly we know it.

There is a pain we feel, a real physical discomfort, when our minds are forced to consider two opposing ideas. This discomfort is called “cognitive dissonance.” Because of this discomfort, most people will quickly jettison an idea which opposes their previous assumptions and patterns of thinking. The less educated, informed, or knowledgeable on a particular subject, the more painful it is for us to consider new information. Because of this, the less knowledgeable someone is on a subject, the more stubborn they tend to be on it.

Reactance - The more people tell us we have to do something, the less we want to do it.

We are actually hard-wired to want personal freedom. Yes, we often have a herd mentality or group-think, but even though we often conform to those around us, we will only do this if we felt like it was our choice to do so. The more people who come up saying we have to do something, the less we want to do it. This is a well-documented cognitive behavior called “reactance.” The most famous example of this is Architect talking to Neo in The Matrix Reloaded saying explaining that people have to “choose” to be in the Matrix, even if that choice is sub-conscious.

Confirmation Bias - We value information we have more than new information.


If you know a “fact” or piece of knowledge, that information is more valuable to you than a hundred bits of new information. If we are presented with thousands of pieces of new information, we will still prefer our one piece. Therefore, if the new information contradicts with the information we already have, we will reject it. The only way we accept new information is if the information we already have “fits” with it. Our personal data is precious to us, and we won’t let it go if at all possible.

Growing Resistance - The more we are “certain” the more others will deny it.

It is like Newton’s third law of physics: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more consensus builds and demands conformity, the more stubborn opposition grows.

So How Do We Overcome These Problems?

  1. Stop Touting Consensus, Embrace Doubt - This seems counter-intuitive, but constant drumming of “everyone smarter than you agrees” isn’t going to help. All it does is make people cling to their prejudices more. The reality is that there are genuine issues to be had both with climate change research and vaccine safety. The little bit of “truth” climate change deniers and vaccine skeptics have will not go away by ignoring it, but by embracing it. In other words, the more certain the “experts” are, the less the public will trust them. The more that the experts seem like they are listening to, and considering, the doubts and concerns around them, the more people will listen to them as well.
  2. Spend More Time Presenting Information, Less Time Making Conclusions - The real problem with the national conversation about climate change and vaccine safety. The media is giving FAR more time to conclusions than information. When you say “99% of scientists agree” you are just saying “check your brain at the door and agree with a group of people you don’t know but think they are smarter than you.” The trick with cognitive dissonance is that we never endure it in large quantities, but can come to new conclusions with small steps over time. If the media spent more time covering data, research, and conflicting information, the more people will start considering new conclusions on their own.
  3. Understand That “Crazy” People Have Good Data, With Bad Conclusions - Most of the skepticism over climate change isn't over climate change, it is over questions about if we caused it or what we can do to fix it. To be blunt, as someone who believes in man-made (or man-influenced) climate change, the solutions have been pretty stupid. Equally scientific studies of macro-economic behavior have shown that carbon-credits are a terrible idea. Likewise, vaccines do have real side-effects and there are enough families with before/after stories to at least warrant consideration.

When a minority of information is ignored, it grows in strength. If “doubters” could see their concerns being taken seriously, instead of brushed off, they would start to open their minds. We have to take time to let everyone know we have listened, considered all the alternatives, and build consensus instead of try to strong-arm it. Saying things are “fact” and drumming “consensus” alienates people, and can also foster a dangerous level of arrogance.