Friday, March 13, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #101: Why Do We Ignore Scientific Fact?

If you’ve never argued with a pigheaded, obstinate fool who refuses to acknowledge scientific consensus, you’ve never really lived. Or maybe, like me, you know somebody who was convinced the apocalypse was going to happen, and then when it didn’t happen, postponed it. No? Just me?

I thought of that because one of the articles I read about this phenomenon cited the Seekers, a cult of which I have written before, as an extreme example of folks clinging to their beliefs in the face of undeniable evidence to the contrary. In case you forgot, they believed that the Earth was going to be destroyed by flooding on December 21, 1954, but that an alien spaceship was going to rapture them and save them from the end of days. When the apocalypse didn’t happen and the aliens didn’t come, the cult members rationalized that they had saved the world at the last minute through the strength of their belief, and I was like “Wait a minute, I’ve heard this one before.”

So why, and how, do these people ignore and/or rationalize hard evidence? Like everything else in life, it has to do with feelings. When we first encounter new information or a new conspiracy theory, our emotional response to learning that officials on all levels of government have been replaced with lizards wearing human suits occurs so quickly that we don’t have time to think about it rationally. We’ll decide whether or not Michelle Obama is a reptilian based on how we feel about it, and then later, we’ll think of what sounds like a rational argument to support it. If it’s an argument that no one can really prove or disprove, like regarding the existence of God, for example, so much the better.

Now, imagine someone comes along and says, “You’re being ridiculous, reptilians aren’t real, etc.”

“Well, even if they aren’t real, it can still be my opinion that they’re real, even if they’re not,” you say.

“Your opinion is wrong.”

“Opinions can’t be wrong."

This is what happens inside my head every time someone says opinions can't be wrong.

That happens because, according to Arthur Lupia at the University of Michigan, we react to information that feels emotionally threatening as if it were a real threat, like a tiger or something. Of course, it’s not a tiger, but we retreat from it anyway, even if that means shutting down the conversation.

Of course, verifiable scientific facts are different, right? Of course they aren’t, go crawl back under your rock. People, unsurprisingly, decide whether or not a scientist is credible based on how much they agree with what he or she has to say. FFS. Since scientists never agree with each other (Two percent of scientists don’t believe in evolution. Who are these people?), it’s easy enough for people on both sides of an issue to decide that their scientists are right and the other side’s scientists are wrong and wait a minute, I’ve heard this one before.

So that’s why 88 percent of scientists believe that GMOs are safe, but only 37 percent of the public does, for example. Something about GMOs threatens people, for some reason, and some, but not all, are using the opinions of the other 12 percent of scientists to back them up.

That’s not to say that people might not be compelled to change their minds about things. It makes sense that people who don’t have a particularly strong emotional attachment to an issue are more amenable to changing their minds about it. Some folks will also relinquish their most cherished beliefs to ally themselves with other members of their social group. Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan recently published research that suggests that thinking about a time when you felt good about yourself can help you come to a more accurate understanding of a loaded political issue. So, remember that the next time you get into an argument.

Put down the stick and think about the time you won the third-grade science fair.