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The terms fake news and post-truth have become a fixed part of our vocabulary. Mistrust of public institutions and science seems to be growing, just like the gap between reality and rhetoric. In a new publication, social psychologists Bastiaan Rutjens from the University of Amsterdam and Mark Brandt from Tilburg University bring together cutting-edge research on the influence of belief systems on our perception of reality and the conflicts that follow from this.

A majority of people believe they are objectively perceiving reality and that others with the same information experience the world in the same way. ‘As a result, people who do not share our views are quickly labelled as irrational, ignorant or worse’, says Rutjens. ‘This can lead to simple misunderstandings, but also to a clash of ideologies and serious conflict. We see this happening increasingly more in the public and political space.’

In their book Belief Systems and the Perception of Reality, Rutjens and Brandt bring together the latest international research on the influence and clash of ideologies. The contributing authors use various perspectives to describe how ideology shapes our views and beliefs, how this process leads to bias and, ultimately, to a conflict over truth and values. The authors specifically focus on the perception of and trust in public institutions and science.

Mistrust of public institutions

Public institutions are tasked with informing citizens as objectively as possible on potential risks. For instance, think of the way climate bodies provide information on weather patterns or health services issue advice on disease prevention. As such, they play an essential role in educating the public. However, these institutions are grappling with rising public scepticism towards the information they produce and share. Prominent examples include the debate on vaccinations and the growing number of parents who mistrust (the information on) vaccines and refuse to have their children vaccinated. ‘When people cannot agree on the basic facts, it makes it impossible to even have the debates necessary to solve societal challenges’, says Brandt.

The contributing authors explain how ideology influences our perceptions of facts and, by extension, our trust in the information supplied by public institutions. When citizens are suspicious about the reliability of this factual information, such as with the efficacy of vaccinations, there is a tendency to react by trying to speak to—or even attack—the underlying ideology, says Rutjens. However, it is likely that such a strategy backfires. Instead, a more fruitful approach might be to try and understand the ideological antecedents of the suspicion, and subsequently to critically reflect on one’s own message and adjust it accordingly.

Trust in science

In his own contribution, Rutjens examines how ideology shapes trust in science, both by the public, but also by scientists themselves. Other contributors call for critical self-reflection among scientists and an awareness of the ideological choices made throughout the scientific process. Rutjens doesn’t doubt the scientific integrity of scientists when doing their work, but does notice a preference for certain research themes. ‘Everybody is biased, including scientists. We need to be very cognisant of how we deal with this. If, by contrast, we are unaware of this bias, we insufficiently examine the alternatives and rely too much on scientific consensus. We should instead remain open to other themes and questions’, says Rutjens.

Political content: America versus Europe

Several European and American researchers contributed articles to the book. What strikes Rutjens are the noticeable differences between these contributions, which can be attributed to the political context in which the authors operate. ‘The US is characterised by a major divide between conservative and liberal, and an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset. As a result, American scientists and researchers have to try and bridge the divide in order to reach out to the other 50 per cent of the population. In Europe, and the Netherlands in particular, the political landscape is more diverse and characterised by subtle differences which scientists have to consider. 

Publication details

Belief Systems and the Perception of Reality, edited by Bastiaan Rutjens & Mark Brandt (Routledge 2018). ISBN 9781315114903.