Wednesday, May 09, 2012

I'm a Good Person so I Trust Facts

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

NPR is a great way to spend a commute and often they talk about some great, new research.  Sometimes it is unpublished or questionable, but still gets you thinking.  This morning NPR was talking about how when presented with facts that contradict strongly held opinions most people will hang on to their opinions in the face of solid facts.  This has been seen specifically when people are interviewed about the president's ability to control gas prices.  A majority of republicans say he can and a majority of democrats say he can't.  However, if the peson polled was made to feel good about themselves they were more likely to listen to the facts and possibly changing their opinion.  This is pretty impressive and an odd connection.  If this is a true phenomenon it would apply to facts outside of just gas prices or politics in general.  What would the effect be on controversial politicized science concepts or how we teach science in school?  Is the key to teaching counterintuitive material or convincing a school board that intelligent design is not a science making everyone start the day by looking into a mirror and saying "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, I occasionally don't cut people off in traffic and I am kind to small animals." 


As I am sure everyone is aware, in many states there has been a push to "teach the controversy" by including intelligent design in science class.  The fact of the matter is that there is no controversy.  One idea is based on years of scientific discovery and one is based on the fact that people don't like what the science is saying.  There is also the unfortunate use of the word "theory" which is easily misunderstood by the public.    So lets say you go to a meeting of your conservative school board and wish to argue your case for removing intelligent design from the curriculum and making sure that evolution is taught exclusively.   You could stand there with a long list of facts saying why one is a science and belongs in science class and one should have no place in schools.  Will that really work?  Hasn't this group dismissed those facts before?  But what if the first thing to do when you walk into that room is have everyone talk about a time they felt good about themselves.   Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler argue that doing so would make them more likely to see your point of view.  

When people are presented with facts that oppose their currently held beliefs they experience cognitive dissonance and it doesn't feel so great.  This research argues that if people are made to feel good about themselves before you make them feel bad by telling them they're wrong, it will end up balancing out and they will be more likely to listen to contradictory facts.  Because science is fundamentally based on facts, this is some powerful stuff for those arguing for science policy to understand. 

There is another way to use these interesting techniques, education.  It is widely assumed that when someone is presented with facts in an educational setting they will 'see the light' so to speak and change their view.  Nyhan and Reifler have seen that facts aren't always convincing enough.  Could this idea of self-affirmation also be used in a classroom setting?  This is very much outside the scope of the paper, but still an interesting thing to think about.  Often times students are presented with ideas that are contrary to their long-held beliefs about the world.  A great example of this is falling objects.  If told that heavier objects fall at the same rate as lighter ones, students simply won't believe you.  It falls to the teacher to create an experiment that successfully dispels this misconception and sometimes students still won't believe you.  It can also be extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to come up with good experiments.  So maybe, if teachers have their class write about times when they were really good kids before showing them that the world is very different from how they thought it was, they will be more likely to accept what they see.  


Disclaimer:  This research has not passed the peer review process and has not yet officially been published.  However, I thought the ideas presented were interesting and applicable and decided to write about it anyway.  


2 comments:

  1. "A majority of republicans say he can and a majority of democrats say he can't. "...unless the year is 2007.

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  2. Go with your intuition, America. If you can't see how mere mindless minerals miraculously made microbes and men, it's probably not science. Beware evil people preaching their evilusionism to change the foundation of your kid's worldview and get them to OK the New World Order global plantation. Socialism has never worked compared to free market capitalism. Learn from history or repeat it. Free stuff from government is always the most expensive kind. 1st duty of patriotism? Keep your wealth out the hands of bureaucrats.

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