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Abstract

The ability of scientific knowledge to contribute to public debate about societal risks depends on how the public assimilates information resulting from the scientific community. Bayesian decision theory assumes that people update a belief by allocating weights to a prior belief and new information to form a posterior belief. The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of prior beliefs on assimilation of scientific information and test several hypotheses about the manner in which people process scientific information on genetically modified food and global warming. Results indicated that assimilation of information is dependent on prior beliefs and that the failure to update beliefs in a Bayesian fashion is a result of several factors including: misinterpreting information, illusionary correlations, selectively scrutinizing information, information-processing problems, knowledge, political affiliation, and cognitive function.

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