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Facts be damned

Argh! I’ve been working on this stupid blog post for a week. Then yesterday, it comes out that the researcher faked his data. Stupid scientist. (PSA: Science is a process, not a religion, not “facts.” Science is done by humans whom–whatever their academic qualifications–are just as prone to being lying jerks as the rest of humanity.) So, anyway the study is fake, but I think my thoughts on it still hold true. What do you think? And the title–which I had already written prior to the revelation of skullduggery–certainly still applies. Rotten liar.


Anyway, to the original post, bearing in mind the study is a fraud.

This American Life recently did a show called “The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind.”  In a segment called “Do Ask Do Tell, ” activists canvassed neighborhoods where people opposed to their issue lived (in this case, gay marriage and legal abortion), talked with individuals, and asked them to change their minds. In statistically significant numbers, the people did change their minds.

You can listen to that here:

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What’s interesting is the canvasers (new word?) didn’t report using facts or arguments to gain support, but rather merely sought to connect with the people they talked to on a personal, emotional level. You know, “Hey, I’m a nice person, and I am/did this thing you disagree with. You don’t really think I’m a bad person do you? Don’t you think you should change your mind, rather than think I’m a bad person, which you can clearly see I am not?” (Seriously, listen to the piece. Offering arguments in support of their position resulted in less success in changing opinions.) In fact, making an actual argument lead to a lower conversion rate.  (Yeah, the researcher lied.)

All manner of cliches come to mind, the most prominent are, “People like what they know, they don’t know what they like,” and “People won’t care what you know ’til they know that you care.” But basically, it boils down to this: people are far more emotionally driven then they’d like to believe, and often we believe what we believe, not because we think it’s true, but because we like the people who say it’s true.

Conversely, we’re very often closed to hearing the case for some position we disagree with because we don’t like — or we think we don’t like — the people associated with that idea. In college, I interned for the National Right to Life Committee. One weekend, my roommates and I were hanging out with my landlord’s son and his frien. After having a pretty nice time, she said, “You guys are great; you don’t seem like you’d bomb an abortion clinic.” We were probably the first (out) pro-lifers she’d ever met, but her image was that pro-lifers bombed buildings. So I wonder how open she was to hearing a case for protecting life? (My response, “Thanks, I guess?”)

Of course, you have to wonder how deeply held these beliefs were when a conversation with a stranger who merely held the opposing view could change them. We all have things we decry with certainty, although we haven’t really thought about at all, usually because those are the correct beliefs of the tribe with which we associate. Andrew Kern said (and I agree), “You don’t have a right to an opinion about an issue you haven’t thought about,” but that’s absolutely contrary to human experience. We have opinions about everything, even if we’re completely ignorant of the matter! And the easiest way to have an uninformed opinion is to go with what the people you like believe.

This is why so much advertisement — both in politics and the market — are appeals to celebrity. Honestly, people don’t look to mechanical engineer Bill Nye for his opinion on evolutionary science or sex education (!!!) because he has special knowledge or insight. They look to him because he had a television show. Bless their hearts.

If we know vaguely that our religion or associated political party holds a view but not the reasoning behind that, we’re happy to spout off loudly about that belief until we form an emotional attachment with someone holding the opposite belief. Then without much thought, we change our beliefs.

I don’t think the answer is “abandon logic and reason, and just go with your gut and the people you think are nicest!” But I do think that 1. we ought to be aware of the instinct to “think” with our heart, and 2. we ought to remember it’s not just the best argument that wins the day, but that we have to be likeable, as well as informed. This will be harder for some of us because frankly it feels a bit like a high school election: one big popularity contest. To which I say, “Suck it up, buttercup, life’s not fair.” And also, “Be on your guard against charming snake-oil salesmen and politicians. But I repeat myself.”

But primarily it comes down to this: People are people. They are neither machines working on pure data, nor beasts working on pure instinct.  We are rational and relational creatures, and we would do well to remember that, whatever side of the argument we’re on.

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