Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Public Weighs Values More Than Facts

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote a piece titled "You need to be Perky, Shallow, and Superficial" when communicating with the public (and politicians). I didn't come up with that phrase. It was a paraphrase from a speech I heard given by Pat Dahmer of the DOE when she talked about communicating with politicians.

While that was a glib statement, it has a lot of truth in it. I've cited examples in that blog entry, and in many of my blog entries on here since then, of situations when the public simply put more emphasis on bells and whistles, and ignored facts and scientific data when they decide on something. When that happens, style will trump over substance. You can easily persuade the masses not with valid facts, but with how persuasive you can present your position. An engaging speaker, a jaw-dropping multimedia presentation, etc. can easily convince a large group of people to your side, regardless of whether you actually have something valid to say.

Well now, a new study has clearly shown just how much the public don't really care about facts. Charles Day's blog in PhysicsToday highlights a new study that shows that the public put more emphasis on their values, even when it contradicts with facts.

Indeed, scientists are so used to giving up cherished theories in the face of contradictory experiments that they sometimes forget that nonscientists are less deferential toward facts. A study published recently in the Journal of Risk Research underlines that difference.

As Day wrote in the blog, I'm not surprised either that the public doesn't put as much emphasis on facts as scientists do. And his statement that scientists are more likely to give up cherished theories (or ideologies) than non-scientists when faced with contradictory experiments and facts is consistent with what Dan Koshland had mentioned earlier that "... science is more receptive to non-conformity than any other segment of our society".

So I think when the next time some public figures rant about science and how it is inflexible, rigid, upholding the status quo, doesn't want to change, etc.. etc., we now have ample evidence to the contrary, and that it is the PUBLIC/non-scientists as a whole that are more susceptible to upholding their beliefs despite being given evidence to the contrary.

Edit: I found a place that has a copy of the manuscipt. Click here. The exact reference to the published paper is D.M. Khan et al., Journal of Risk Research 10 September 2010 (I couldn't find the volume and page number).


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