Changing minds.

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.


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

2 thoughts on “Changing minds.”

  1. Good blog. I’ll try to explain my thoughts.

    I think even a casual reading of Michel Foucault or Hannah Arendt will explain why–even when science itself is convinced of the benefits of a certain policy–there is ample room for the general public to be skeptical. Science and those professions which are data driven, like medicine, have a lot to answer for when they get it wrong. They have gotten it wrong more often than we’d like to think. So-called “racial science” was once a credible field. Thalidomide was once prescribed regularly. We used to think “hysteria” was once a legitimate medical condition caused by female physiology. We’ve corrected many of those mistakes, but how many mistakes are we making–today–that we might not recognize until many years later? What about amalgam fillings? What about routine male circumcision? Even if we /do/ discover that these things cause harm, there is an incentive to suppress it because of the liability ramifications to the regimes of power (and science is a big one) that would be harmed.

    It seems that scientists keep on telling us that we’d be better off if we trust them, but when they discern wrongly and people are harmed, the scientists themselves suffer no real consequences except among their peers in the academy. That is why I am one of the few who can see why the Italian scientists who discerned wrongly in the L’Acquila earthquake in Italy had to face some sort of justice. People died because of that prediction, and the outrage against the conviction of the seven scientists by the scientific community shows me–more than anything–that science might not be ready to tell us, the non-scientific public, what is in “our best interests.” Because while there are consequences in science for bad conclusions that harm the public, the consequences are–for the most part–too benign and too lenient. Perhaps the only way more people will accept the word of scientists is if the scientists themselves are held to the /public/ account–through criminal or civil liability–rather than just simple peer censure.

    1. well, scientists do face very real consequences; if we’re wrong about something big, we don’t get to be scientists anymore for the most part. Funding dries up, etc.

      While science does get things wrong, it’s also allowed us to built the world we exist in today for all the things that turn out to be correct. There may be flaws, but it’s better than being completely in the dark, which would be the case without it.

      And I agree, suppression can happen, but I’d like to think more openness happens now than ever. Science succeeds collectively; so it’s not about trusting any one scientist, but scientists, plural; our hard won consensus views. So yes, be skeptical if one person is saying something, but a lot less so if one person is saying something and is backed up by their entire field on a topic. and if someone’s being cagey or hiding information, then yes, that’s a reason to be skeptical of a claim too.

      The Italian case is interesting; and probably a failure of science communication more than anything (a region prone to Earthquakes needs to be ready for them, period; they’re going to happen and are not currently predictable as far as I know).

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