Anyone who has ever seriously debated opinions with other people, especially via online forums like newsgroups and blogs, has probably developed a pretty firm suspicion that facts don’t matter. I’ve been watching online forums since the early 1980s, reading usenet with rn when there were only a few dozen groups. I have seen any number of debates where Side B has been clinically and comprehensively demolished by Side A, but B has carried on believing that they are right and claiming “victory”. The futility of it all kept me from ever participating online until The Standard in 2007. I got involved then because although you’ll never change the minds of the people you debate with (far too much ego involved), I think you can change the minds of those who aren’t participating, those who (like I used to) just lurk and read the debates.
Anyway, back to the original point, for a majority of people facts don’t matter. Opinions are formed as a result of many influences, facts are only one of them, and not the most important. (I was reminded of this yet again by the usual crop of deniers commenting on the Earth hour post.) I’ve been meaning for a long time to dig into this a bit, and find some relevant psychological research, but George Monbiot has saved me the trouble. He wrote this piece about the climate change “debate”, but the underlying point applies everywhere:
There is no simple way to battle public hostility to climate research. As the psychologists show, facts barely sway us anyway
There is one question that no one who denies manmade climate change wants to answer: what would it take to persuade you? In most cases the answer seems to be nothing. No level of evidence can shake the growing belief that climate science is a giant conspiracy codded up by boffins and governments to tax and control us. The new study by the Met Office, which paints an even grimmer picture than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will do nothing to change this view. The attack on climate scientists is now widening to an all-out war on science. …
Yesterday in the Guardian Peter Preston called for a prophet to lead us out of the wilderness. “We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince We need to be taught to believe by a true believer.” Would it work? No. Look at the hatred and derision the passionate and persuasive Al Gore attracts. The problem is not only that most climate scientists can speak no recognisable human language, but also the expectation that people are amenable to persuasion.
In 2008 the Washington Post summarised recent psychological research on misinformation. This shows that in some cases debunking a false story can increase the number of people who believe it. In one study, 34% of conservatives who were told about the Bush government’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were inclined to believe them. But among those who were shown that the government’s claims were later comprehensively refuted by the Duelfer report, 64% ended up believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
There’s a possible explanation in an article published by Nature in January. It shows that people tend to “take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd”. Those who see themselves as individualists and those who respect authority, for instance, “tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire”. Those with more egalitarian values are “more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted”.
These divisions, researchers have found, are better at explaining different responses to information than any other factor. Our ideological filters encourage us to interpret new evidence in ways that reinforce our beliefs. “As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarised, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.” The conservatives in the Iraq experiment might have reacted against something they associated with the Duelfer report, rather than the information it contained.
… my beliefs oblige me to try to make sense of the [climate] science and to explain its implications. This turns out to be the most divisive project I’ve ever engaged in. The more I stick to the facts, the more virulent the abuse becomes. This doesn’t bother me I have a hide like a glyptodon but it reinforces the disturbing possibility that nothing works. …
Perhaps we have to accept that there is no simple solution to public disbelief in science. The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them. There goes my life’s work.
Now there’s a depressing conclusion. Here’s another – facts do matter. We can ignore the facts all we like, but the facts aren’t going to ignore us.