Today in Nature Human Behaviour: knowledge, confidence and attitudes towards science
"The study now published presents compelling evidence that both overconfidence and negative attitudes towards science peak at intermediate knowledge levels. This is a research by the LIP SPAC group and collaborators led by Joana Gonçalves-Sá. Nature highlighted this study in a Research Briefing."
Overconfidence, occuring when individuals subjectively assess their aptitude to be higher than their objective accuracy, has long been recognised as a critical problem in judgment and decision making. But how to gauge these miscalibrations is far from trivial. In the case of scientific knowledge, the lack of awareness of one's own ignorance can impact behaviours, pose risks to public policies, and even jeopardise health.
In the study published today, researchers examined four large surveys conducted over a span of 30 years in Europe and the USA, and sought to develop a novel confidence metric that would be indirect, independent across scales, and applicable to diverse contexts. The research team used surveys with the format "True", "False", "Don't know" and devised a ratio of incorrect to "Don't Know" answers as an overconfidence metric, positing that incorrect answers could indicate situations where respondents believed they knew the answer but were mistaken, thus demonstrating overconfidence.
The results revealed two key findings. First, overconfidence tended to grow faster than knowledge, reaching its peak at intermediate levels of knowledge. Second, respondents with intermediate knowledge and high confidence also displayed the least positive attitudes towards science.
To validate their conclusions, the researchers developed a new survey, quantitatively analysed the work of other colleagues and used two direct, non-comparative metrics of trust, which confirmed the trend that trust increases faster than knowledge.
The implications of these findings are far-reaching and challenge conventional assumptions about science communication strategies. While presenting simplified information might offer a basic level of knowledge, it could also lead to increased overconfidence gaps among those with some (albeit little) knowledge. Thus, the study suggests that efforts to promote knowledge, if not accompanied by an equivalent effort to convey a certain awareness of how much remains to be understood, can have unexpected effects. It also suggests that interventions should be targeted at individuals with intermediate knowledge, since they make up the majority of the population and tend to have the least positive attitudes towards science.
Nevertheless, the researchers caution that their confidence metric might not generalise to topics outside of scientific knowledge and surveys that penalise wrong answers heavily. The study also does not imply causality, and individual and cultural differences were observed. Overall, this paper calls for further exploration of integrative metrics that can accurately measure both knowledge and confidence while considering potential differences in constructs.
Press release: HERE
Nature also decided to highlight this study in a Research Briefing: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-023-01678-7