Why facts don’t matter

Consider this experiment.

A researcher presents a group of university students with two studies. One suggests capital punishment is effective in combatting crime; the other says capital punishment is a hopeless deterrent. Before they entered the room, half the students supported the death penalty, the other half didn’t.

What would you expect to happen to the students’ views on capital punishment? Would the hard data convince them that the issue was more nuanced than they realised? Would they leave the study with a greater appreciation for the other side of the argument?

This is what three Stanford researchers set out to find, all the way back in 1979. The answer was a resounding no; the data did not change their minds. The students who opposed capital punishment found the ‘pro’ data thoroughly unconvincing, while those who originally thought capital punishment was a good idea thought the ‘anti’ data was questionable. Both groups left even more entrenched in their original views.

Both studies were completely made up, anyway.


_   A M   M O R E   A N T _ – C A P _ T A L   P U N _ S H M E N T   A F T E R   R E A DN G   T H I S   S T U D Y   A N D   L O SN G   A T   H A N G M A N (image by Pearson Scott Foresman, via wikimedia)

Bias confirmed

This is what psychologists call a confirmation bias. Any information we look at is coloured by our existing views. We’re likely to hold on to information that supports those views, and reject information that challenges them.

38 years after that Stanford study, confirmation biases are only getting worse. Social media is feeding us the news that we want to hear, so we barely read anything that conflicts with our views.

What are the impacts of this? Why does it matter?

Well, it’s contributing to global lack of action on climate change, for instance. Those who are sceptical of climate change are more likely to pounce on inaccurate predictions, and disregard any information that supports the prevailing scientific view.

It’s also leading to more kids not receiving vaccinations. A single study from a British physician that linked vaccines with autism – a paper that the publisher has since retracted, because the author manipulated evidence – sparked a movement that is still going strong today. Anti-vaxxers have been credited (maybe not the right word) with bringing back measles to the USA.

“Finally, after all these dodgy websites I found one that speaks the truth!” – Anti-vaxxer, probably (image adapted from Google)

So what can we do to be more convincing?

Sorry scientists: facts don’t work on their own. How we frame and communicate research is even more important than the strength of the findings.

Researchers from Cornell University studied online discussions, and think they have some answers on how to change people’s minds.

Using less emotive language, and not seeming too certain of yourself, actually increases your persuasive powers. When you’re challenging strongly-held views, appreciate the fact that you are fighting to change someone’s identity. Remain calm, and patient.

Specific examples are useful too. A short story is worth a lot more than a long rant about theory. Find different ways to communicate your information, and you’re more likely to break through. Beware, though; it’s a tough ask.

And beware of your own biases, so you can evaluate research on its merits and become more objective.

Best of luck, science communicators! Nothing less than the future of the world depends on it. (Yeah, we’re probably screwed.)


5 Responses to “Why facts don’t matter”

  1. awylde says:

    Great read Sam! If only we could find the magic formula to convince all the idio…. (well let’s call them “uninformed individuals”) out there!

    Sometimes it’s hard to blame people for their contrary views though. In this day and age it is so difficult to know who and what to believe that it’s easy to just cling onto whatever keeps things rolling the way that they are.

  2. Sam Heselev says:

    Thanks Ellen! I’m not sure I had any answers but it’s useful for us to be reminded of our biases, at least.

  3. Ellen Rochelmeyer says:

    Interesting read and great advice. It also makes one realise that we need to beware of bias in ourselves.

  4. Sam Heselev says:

    Great question Richard, and I wish I had an answer. I think it’s dangerous to designate an arbiter of truth (and impractical, because how would you get everyone to agree to a single arbiter?).

    Ultimately, it’s up to individuals to make up their own mind, but being aware of personal biases will help distinguish the facts from alternative facts. As I suggested, the chances of this happening are pretty slim!

  5. Richard Proudlove says:

    Hi Sam. Great topic. It is very easy and comforting to live in a social media echo chamber. My question is that, in a world where equal weight is given to facts and “alternate facts”, who should be the arbiter of truth? https://theconversation.com/why-journalistic-balance-is-failing-the-public-68783