Interview

Małgorzata Kossowska: ‘Democracy needs people to be well-informed’

10.6.2021 | In a world fighting a deadly pandemic, acceptance of scientific truth couldn’t get more important. We spoke to psychologist Prof Małgorzata Kossowska about knowledge resistance, trust in experts and how the white, male scientific advisors influence scientist stereotypes.
Prof Małgorzata Kossowska
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(© Agnieszka Fiejka)


Prof Małgorzata Kossowska


Prof Kossowska, could you please introduce yourself?


I’m a professor in psychology at the Jagiellonian University, working as the Head of the Social Psychology Unit and Centre for Social Cognitive Studies in Kraków. I’m interested in the cognitive but also motivational underpinnings of complex phenomena, such as political beliefs, political polarisation and inequalities. At the centre, we use behavioural, neurocognitive and psychophysiological approaches to study those phenomena.


You are working on a project on knowledge resistance. What does that look like in the real world?


Knowledge resistance is the failure to accept available knowledge. Most people sometimes make a decision based on invalid knowledge but some deliberately deny science and scientific evidence and as a consequence, they don’t use knowledge as the basis for their decisions. On the contrary, they tend to create “alternative facts” and/or actively disseminate of fake news and disinformation.


Those behaviours can have a real, dangerous impact on others. For example, if a small group of people says that vaccinations are wrong, they will impact not only themselves but also others, especially vulnerable people. Another example can be found in the perceptions of minorities, which can transform into real, harmful behaviours towards minority groups.


On a societal level, democracy needs people to be well-informed. If the people cannot make a decision based on true knowledge, it undermines the whole democratic system. We observe it across the world as the rise of populism, the rise of polarisation, the rise of autocratic governments and movements—that’s the impact of knowledge resistance.


Is knowledge resistance a recent thing or a feature of human nature?


I think the phenomenon is strictly related to being human, so it’s not new, but what is new is the scale of those behaviours, which has increased because of digitalisation. Information is everywhere and it’s not easy to say if that information is valid or not. There used to be clues offered by the authorities or the media, but the media environment has also changed. They are no longer gatekeepers who can say for sure that this is credible but that is not credible.


What is more, we observe general distrust in experts as legitimate and official sources of information and a tendency to resist the authority of scientific institutions, scientists, and the knowledge they produce. Thus, anti-knowledge and pseudo-theories are spread quickly through online communities. As a result, people are ready to rely on unverified information, which has a major impact on their health and lives.


It’s important to promote the fact that science is a process and uncertainty is an inherent element of it


Would you say it’s an aim of your research to not only understand knowledge resistance behaviours but to influence them?


Yes, the aim is to collect as much important information as possible to provide some solutions. It’s very ambitious. At the moment, it’s absolutely too soon. There is some research testing different approaches to ‘immunise’ people from fake news, but we’re far from being sure what kind of interventions would be effective. I hope after six years of very intense work that we will be able to say what kind of action needs to be taken, in what contexts and aimed at what groups.


Scientific evidence is often nuanced and difficult to understand, how does that feature into it?


It’s important to promote the fact that science is a process and uncertainty is an inherent element of it. Scientific output is temporary and must be verified again and again, and in most cases, conclusions have to be changed. That’s emerged in the discussions during the COVID-19 crisis; even medical doctors and epidemiologists haven’t always known what they were dealing with. For many people, uncertainty is difficult to accept since it is rarely properly communicated. Scientific models reduce complex phenomena, such as the pandemic, to simplified approximations. They are necessarily imperfect as they arise from incomplete or low-quality data, but they allow us to estimate the relationship between the cause of a given phenomenon and its effect. That’s why models are never true or false but better or worse. Possible discrepancies between the various models can usually be easily explained. Scientists know this but the public does not.


Now that we’re on the topic of COVID-19, how do you think the rise of the scientific advisors will influence people’s view on scientists, considering that most are white men?


There was a recent Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation report that analysed coronavirus coverage published by mainstream publications around the world, including the US. The general conclusion was that women were marginalised, they were asked less for their perspective and when they were asked, the information they provided was used as subjective opinions rather than expert statements. Also, more than 83% of people pictured on the front page of major newspapers during this period were men, and so on.


So yes, I think it influences people’s perception of scientists. At the same time, at least within academia, a lot is changing; it won’t be so easy to say that science is only done by white men. But the picture of the scientist as a white man will be even stronger than before.


Proper communication is absolutely crucial for trust in science and it has consequences for compliance with rules and regulations


Do you think the presence of scientists in the media has increased public trust in science?


At the beginning of the pandemic, people asked for opinions from medical experts and they trusted them more than before—that’s for sure. However, there are data available from different countries, showing that during the pandemic, this trend fluctuated depending on how different pandemic-related issues were communicated by the national governments. Proper communication is absolutely crucial for trust in science and it has consequences for compliance with rules and regulations. On the other hand, even when scientists just report the facts as honestly and clearly as they can, their message may benefit some political and economic interests while weakening others. I think that it helps when scientists, but also knowledge brokers, ensure that their work is open and transparent with regards to methods and assumptions, so that replicability is facilitated and the role of values and interests easily identified.


I have no idea whether these trends will stay after the pandemic, but our societies will be faced with many different crises and experts will be needed. It’s normal that a crisis creates the need to have effective solutions and it’s obvious that experts are the people who can offer them.


Thank you so much for speaking to us.


  (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)
Questions were asked by Emilie Steinmark for AcademiaNet and Spektrum.de

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