Why Your Scientific Data Isn’t Changing Anyone’s Opinions

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Have you ever been in a debate with someone over climate change, evolution, or vaccines, only to notice that facts are not swaying their opinion? You’re not alone.  As scientists, it seems given that when faced with (proven) facts or data, you should accept them.  That’s not the case for the general public.  In this post, I’ll explain why the majority of people don’t respond to scientific data, and how you can use this knowledge to become a more effective science communicator.

When humans have a knowledge gap in one area, they rely on shortcuts, or “heuristics” to make decisions more quickly.  Sometimes, the shortcut is basing an opinion on past experiences.  For example, if you weren’t alive when polio was prevalent, your likelihood of understanding the importance of vaccines, and preferring the risk (which is actually non-existent) of autism over polio might be less than someone who saw a sibling become paralyzed from polio.  Not having a past context to relate to can make it very difficult for scientists to counter scientific misperceptions using data.

Another challenge to arguing with data is rooted deeply within the human subconscious.  Sometimes our data doesn’t align with people’s conceptualization of a scientific topic.  One study on climate change found that people who do not see climate change as a threat perceive climate change as an object, not a process.  This deeply embedded misperception makes presenting facts as effective as putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound.  This finding hints at the importance of metaphor in communicating science, a topic I’ll cover in a future post.

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Perhaps one of the most prevalent heuristics guiding science perceptions (and misconceptions) is politics.  In a later post, I’ll go into the specifics behind the politicalization of science.  For now, it’s important to accept that many scientific topics, particularly climate change, have become intertwined with political dogma.  As an example, your political party affiliation almost always will determine whether you see climate change as a threat or not.  Politics can unfortunately cause the public to be misinformed. According to a Dartmouth study, it is extremely difficult to counter a misinformed public that is relies on political heuristics to form opinions.  

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All of these heuristics boil down to the key issue with using data in scientific arguments: people do not like to be told outright that they are wrong.  Knowing all this, how does a science communicator counter misinformation if we can’t whip out a graph or statistics? Julia Galef, a science educator, public speaker, and President at the Center for Applied Rationality, confers that the best way to engage in a rational argument is to reframe it as a partnership.  Trying to “win” an argument and determine who is “right” and who is “wrong” only fosters a hostile exchange.  Instead, next time you are arguing with someone who is convinced that vaccines cause autism, take a second to recast you and the other person as two equals collaborating on finding the right answer. As Galef states, this sort of mindset allows you to focus on the arguments themselves, not who will walk away triumphant.  

What have your experiences having arguments about science been like?  Share your stories in the comments below. 

As always, thanks for stopping by my blog. In my next post, I’ll talk about how to avoid isolating your audience while communicating science.  Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.

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One thought on “Why Your Scientific Data Isn’t Changing Anyone’s Opinions

  1. Pingback: Why Narrative Works in Science Communication – Let's Talk Science

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