I was at a very engaging talk by a professor at Dartmouth, Brendan Nyhan who talked about his work showing that highly polarized topics, ones that define our identities in some way are hard to change and may become more ingrained when evidence to the contrary is presented. And it seems especially true with highly expert people that can rationalize their beliefs, performing some mental jujitsu to counter the counter-evidence and maintain their belief/identity.
He studies political issues and ideas like the anti-vaccine movement (ed. note, please vaccinate!) or climate change denial. Perhaps more than the anti-vaccine movement, climate change denial is more politicized with current Republican politicians basically unable to even acknowledge that the evidence is overwhelming without facing consequences in electoral results. This despite the fact that the evidence for climate change within science is getting stronger.
His talk brought up some questions for me about science and scientists. Scientists do follow the evidence. We succeed as a collective and not as individuals for the most part. That’s the real power. We’re skeptical when one voice raises evidence for something. It’s a lot more convincing when independent voices can replicate and even extend findings or come to a similar picture from an entirely different methodology. And we’re taught to seek evidence against our ideas. To devise experiments that will show our hypothesis to be incorrect.
That’s the ideal, of course. I’m not sure how often scientists actually live up to it. We’re human too. And expert ones. I’m not sure who to attribute it to, but there’s a saying that science advances one funeral at a time…after a professor has ‘made it’ and cemented a legacy, they want to protect it even in the face of counter-evidence that overturns their findings (or even modifies them in any way). Evolution and relativity are two theories that have withstood the assault of generations and basically have been found to be correct as far as they go (with some modification or limits as evidence accumulates). And because we’re experts in one area, we can argue strongly for our perspective. There may be nothing wrong with that. However, it’s possible we’ll tune out alternative ideas we ought to listen to.
Even worse, it implies that ingrained culture that we take for granted as part of our identity can cause problems. For instance, the slow pace of change in diversity in academia. Even though I know a lot more about the issue than I did before, I still don’t fully understand it. And it has been an uncomfortable experience.