Friday, March 1, 2013

The Science of not believing in Science

Cruising around the internet this week, I ran across an interesting article that focused on why people often are unconvinced by scientific evidence.  The article appeared in Mother Jones in 2011 and has a liberal slant, but it contained information that I think applies to a variety of human enterprises...including the prevention of problem adolescent behaviors like substance abuse and suicide.

Chris Mooney's piece (The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science) explains that even when we are at our most "logical," our prior knowledge, emotions, and biases deeply color the way we process information.  One of the ways that this plays out is in the way we determine who is credible.  It turns out that we are not very quick to accept those who contradict our deeply held beliefs or values as expert...

This makes considerable sense when you think about it.  If people have developed a belief system over many years, and have organized their actions around it, it would be somewhat irrational to think that they might throw their beliefs out based on a piece of "evidence."  (Even if it was very sound evidence, from a logical standpoint.)  People gravitate toward information that confirms what they believe, and they select the sources that deliver it. No real surprise here.

This leaves those of us trying to infuse science-based practice into our community prevention work in a bit of a pickle.  How do we deliver information in a way that can be heard and processed so that it neither overstates or understates the credibility of the person or organization delivering the message, nor leads to the backlash of even more entrenched views that sometimes results from being confronted with information that contradicts what you currently believe?

For example, if I were to tell you that marijuana use can cause addiction, what is your reaction?  Do you first weigh the statement against your own knowledge and experience (perhaps your friends used it and they aren't addicts?)?  Or do you first consider whether I am likely to be an expert in this area of information?  What would lead you to be likely to read and objectively consider studies that support this fact?

As a real science geek, this is fascinating.  As a preventionist with a real sense of urgency around correcting some common misconceptions, it is terrifying.

I would love to hear your thoughts about it!

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