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We’ve all got a certain point in internet arguments where we wonder how people can cling to such obviously false facts. Well, turns out there’s a science to it.
The world is not flat. Climate change is real. Vaccines save lives.
These are all facts. Not “in my opinion” facts, nor facts with an asterisk attached – no, these facts are about as hard as they come.
Yet at any given time, you’re certain to see all manner of voices disputing them, across social media, and scribbled upon the comment sections of your more well-known news outlets.
Despite all the evidence in the world backing up the claims above, there is something about the nature of those three sentences that attracts fringe crowds in numbers that would make even your local Patriots rally blush.
You try your hardest to engage with these people – surely they’re just misunderstood, you tell yourself, before presenting them with more research than you ever gave your university assignments.
You make sure to pick from a wide range of sources, for fear of your hard work being decried as cherry-picking, or as some deep-seated bias. Different countries, different organisations, different political leanings; you painstakingly accrue a veritable catalogue of brain-boosting materials.
All to see your conversational adversary dismiss it as “too long, didn’t read.”
“Why do I bother?” you mutter to yourself, before strapping yourself in to do it all again. Could it be that these people are simply too ignorant to understand what you’re saying?
Turns out, that’s not exactly the case.
Researchers have coined the term “anti-enlightenment movement” to describe this trend of almost counter-science thinking, having spent the better part of the last few years tearing their hair out wondering just what it is that makes people reach for the tin foil.
But psychologists may have finally found the answers.
People who reject the scientific consensus on topics such as climate change, vaccine safety, and evolution are – generally speaking – just as interested in science, and just as educated as your more receptive person is.
So it’s not an issue of education, or of some innate IQ level. The problem stems from the way people deal with information: cherry-picking the facts and studies that back up what they already believe is true.
Meaning that someone who doesn’t believe in climate change will ignore the endless supply of studies that support its existence, but will gleefully latch onto the lone study that aligns with their views – thus feeding their cognitive bias.
Troy Campbell from the University of Oregon, one of the researchers who made this finding, explains that people tend to avoid facts to protect a whole manner of their own beliefs, including their religious belief, political beliefs, and even “simple personal beliefs such as whether they are good at choosing a web browser.”
If you want to shift someone’s position, the researchers recommend looking into the “roots” of a person’s unwillingness to accept consensus, and to try to find a common ground on which to introduce new ideas.
“People treat facts as relevant more when the facts tend to support their opinions. When the facts are against their opinions, they don’t necessarily deny the facts, but they say the facts are less relevant.”
This conclusion was based on a series of interviews, as well as a meta-analysis of prior published research on the topic, and was presented as part of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual convention in San Antonio.
The study was done with the intent of figuring out what’s gone wrong with science communication in 2017, and just how it can be fixed.
The results – yet to be published – suggest that simply focusing on evidence is not enough to change someone’s mind about a particular topic, especially as they probably already have their own brand of “facts” to counter you.
“Where there is conflict over societal risks – from climate change to nuclear-power safety to impacts of gun control laws, both sides invoke the mantle of science,” explains Yale University’s Dan Kahan.
Indeed, if you want to shift someone’s position, the researchers recommend looking into the “roots” of a person’s unwillingness to accept the consensus, and to try to find a common ground on which to introduce new ideas.
In fact, these roots often have a lot to do with a person’s political persuasion, with the researchers finding that people associate scientific conclusions with political or social affiliations.
Kahan found that people have always cherry-picked their facts when it comes to science, but that it previously has not been as much an issue as it is in modern times, because scientific conclusions were usually agreed on by political and cultural leaders, and promoted as being in the best interests of the public.
Not so anymore.
Leadership has given way to hollow sloganeering, as jeers of “axe the tax” silence the evidence behind the benefits of carbon reduction.
The result? What the researchers describe as a “polluted science communication environment”, where science is used as a method of gaining power, rather than a tool for the betterment of mankind.
Also on The Big Smoke
- The Science of Evidence – Part two: Evidence vs popular opinion
- In the age of information, our ignorance is a choice
- Say what, brown cow? Some facts are truer than others?
- Conspiracy Theories: “Nevermind” the facts…
So how exactly can you change people’s minds, if at all, if facts aren’t enough?
Matthew Hornsey, from the University of Queensland, suggests “tailor the message” so that it may better align with your opponent’s current motivations.
“So with climate sceptics, for example, you find out what they can agree on, and then frame climate messages to align with these.”
It’s not a matter of choice, either. Just as ignorance can have profound impacts on an individual, denial of the facts on some issues can cause lasting damage to the entire world.
That’s not hyperbole, either.
“Anti-vaccination movements cost lives,” continues Hornsey.
“Climate change scepticism slows the global response to the greatest social, economic, and ecological threat of our time.
“We grew up in an era when it was just presumed that reason and evidence were the ways to understand important issues; not fear, vested interests, tradition of faith.
“But the rise of climate scepticism and the anti-vaccination movement made us realise that these enlightenment values are under attack.”
Just as one unvaccinated child can compromise the health of many, one climate denialist can derail the efforts of scientists the world over. Especially given a large enough platform.
It may be easy to deride these people as lunatics, or of being simply too stupid to talk to. But to do so is to sideline the importance of scientific advancement, and to allow dangerous misinformation to reign supreme.
When the stakes are this high, there’s no such thing as a conversation that’s “too hard”.