When motivated reasoning is reasonable: Being vigilant about dubious science claims in online articles

When motivated reasoning is reasonable: Being vigilant about dubious science claims in online articles

Author: Lukas Gierth – University of Muenster. Germany

Co-author: Rainer Bromme – University of Muenster

Amidst long standing socio-scientific controversies regarding topics such as vaccination and climate change, lay people are required to make up their mind about scientific phenomena on a regular basis. However, most people lack the necessary expertise to evaluate scientific claims on face value and instead gravitate towards the supposed evidence more in line with their own preconceived notions about these scientific topics. This form of self-serving reasoning is also known as motivated reasoning and could lead people to misweigh, misunderstand or misinterpret scientific information. However, motivated reasoning could also result in vigilance towards deception and thus improve judgment of the trustworthiness and pertinence of experts.

For example, one might not be able to scientifically verify an expert’s claim about the health impacts of sugar, but if this expert is funded by Coca-Cola, one would be hesitant to believe him or her. Further, one might also be vigilant against pro-sugar claims made by this expert and thus evaluate them more closely. In this case, the motivation to not be deceived by a conflicted source would increase scrutiny towards the claim, thereby flipping the notion of motivated reasoning being a hindrance to science communication on its head – as it would lead to more and not less sophisticated reasoning.

To address these notions, we performed a between-subjects experiment. Participants were presented with an online science article dealing with the effects of sugar consumption on short-term memory. We varied the source of funding to introduce a perceived conflict of interest, as well as the claim made by the expert source resulting in three experimental conditions. Outcome variables included a trustworthiness measure, assessing perceived integrity, benevolence and expertise, and a numerical reasoning measure. Since data-collection is ongoing (current N=116, projected N=175), we cannot report results at this moment.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Science
Area of interest: Building a theoretical basis for science communication