The science of disbelief

By Sarah Spencer

In late January, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of the American public regarding their views on science and society.  The results showed strong positive support of the scientific endeavor, with 79% of adults claiming that science has made life easier for most people, and 72% stating that government investment in research pays off in the long run.  So why the pushback?  Why is government funding stagnating while huge public campaigns propagandize against scientific results?

Of course these issues are complicated, but a core driving force involves the psychology of how we maintain and reinforce our beliefs.  And the truth is, we maintain and reinforce our beliefs (yes, even scientists).  Pre-existing belief structures have a strong influence on the facts we consider important, the methods we employ, and what we conclude from data.  This ‘motivated reasoning’ underlies the difficulty of arguing about ideas with facts.  A fact, or even a paper, cannot easily overturn a lifetime of built-up belief structures.

There is support for belief-driven fact filtering from many, many social psychology studies over the past 40 years.  A foundational 1979 paper gathered a group of individuals with strong beliefs either for or against capital punishment.  The researchers exposed the group to fake research articles either supporting or discrediting the ability of the death penalty to reduce crime.  As expected, individuals thought the article supporting their beliefs was more convincing, and strongly criticized the article which refuted their beliefs.  Since this publication, researchers demonstrated belief-directed reasoning in just about any issue you can think of: affirmative action, gun rights, weapons of mass destruction, etc.

A common argument against rampant ‘motivated reasoning’ points to an individual’s level of scientific training.  Can people without deep scientific training truly quality-filter scientific evidence and avoid being misled?  A recent Nature Climate Change letter discredits this idea using climate change as an example.  Surprisingly, members of the public with the greatest scientific literacy and technical reasoning became the most polarized on the issue.  More training resulted in stronger opinions on both sides of the argument.  These knowledgeable individuals simply used the facts to support their pre-conceived beliefs.

Does this mean we’re all inherently illogical?  Of course not – people still accept new evidence and change their minds every day.  It just means we have a multitude of priorities to maintain.  There are people who care about accuracy, supporting a conclusion, maintaining connection with their friends, and/or bolstering their own sense of identity.  Any of these priorities can, at some point, interfere with perfectly logical interpretation of fact.  Combine personal priorities with this whole underworld of instantaneous emotional response to contrary evidence, and it’s understandable why we have a hard time always reaching the same conclusion.

Thankfully there are ways to get the facts straight, but they sometimes rely on setting facts aside.  We live in a world where facts do not reliably persuade, so one useful alternative is to appeal to values.  As an example, if you present a group with the same article under two titles:

“Scientific Panel Recommends Anti-Pollution Solution to Global Warming”

“Scientific Panel Recommends Nuclear Solution to Global Warming”

the latter title results in more people convinced that humans are causing global warming (Kahan et al., 2007).  Something about the focus on industry appeals to the emotions and priorities of climate change disbelievers.  Sure, things are complicated and messy and hard to measure: it’s human psychology.  Still, the next time you’re arguing for a controversial idea, consider structuring around values and then adding data.  This might avoid immediate denial and get more people appreciating the scientific endeavors they implicitly support.


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  1. Thanks for pointing out these publications! As a metacomment, I think about belief in the same way that you do, that we typically reinforce rather than edit their beliefs using facts, and so I find your blog post compelling and accurate.

    Your post is focused on funding, but I think vaccination is the most important contemporary example. (Did you hear about the measles outbreak in Disneyland?) I’m also reminded of my driver’s ed teacher telling me that some people didn’t buckle their seat belts because they thought that, in the event of a crash, they would be “thrown clear”.

    Is it weird or paternalistic to try and manipulate the beliefs of “the masses” when it’s “for their own good” to, say, get their kids vaccinated?

  2. Thanks for the sharing of a insight view about the public ideas of scientific development. As an individual of the public I also believe in that the advances made in science made our lives easier and don’t hope the funding situation in such respect be restricted by the related national organization.-BOC Sciences

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