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Skepticism about science should be met with understanding

Ignorance is not what leads to resistance to science. Identity, political viewpoint and religious beliefs are what affect susceptibility to facts. This is according to professor of philosophy and researcher into scientific skepticism, Klemens Kappel, who visited the academic council at Health and provided some good advice on the communication of facts – also to those who deny them.

Presenting facts to a thoroughbred sceptic can be a waste of time if the facts threaten the identity, cultural affiliation, political or religious beliefs of that person. Because it is not about a deficit of knowledge. It is rather a question of maintaining an ideological affiliation. An example: Despite solid evidence to support that humans are behind global warming, there are groups, particularly in the United States, which deny the evidence. And even though new research results will support previous studies, they will probably not be able to alter these people’s convictions.

This was one example presented by professor from the University of Copenhagen, Klemens Kappel, who is also a medical doctor, philosopher and researcher into skepticism about science, when he gave a lecture at Aarhus University in connection with the academic council meeting on 17 May 2018.

Klemens Kappel highlighted the case of the HPV vaccine which ran into considerable resistance, particularly following a TV2 documentary which implied a correlation between the vaccine and young women's symptoms. The number of girls getting the vaccine only increased again following the launch of a campaign by the Danish Health and Medicines Agency aimed directly at the target group – which utilised not only figures but also emotion to deliver its message of why parents should get their daughters vaccinated.

"Even though there has been ample access the whole time to the Danish Health and Medicines Authority’s meta-analyses of the vaccine’s effectiveness and absence of side effects, there was still skepticism about the data. Probably because the people in question had a psychological need to maintain the story of the vaccine being dangerous,” said Klemens Kappel.

He believes that objective, neutral and meticulous information is not sufficient when a person who demonstrates skepticism about science needs to be convinced. Which is good to know when a researcher must communicate results in public – particularly when it comes to controversial topics such as gene technology, artificial insemination and vaccinations. Klemens Kappel’s advice is therefore that they should show understanding for the recipient's values and cultural background.

"If you as a communicator are aware of this, it will result in more responsiveness from the recipient's side," he says.


Professor Klemens Kappel is head of the research project Convergent Ethics and Ethics of Controversy on skepticism about science which is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation to the tune of DKK ten million.    


Professor Klemens Kappel
University of Copenhagen, Department of Media, Cognition and Communication.