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Education Science

The "Scientific Impotence" Excuse 892

chichilalescu writes "I've had the feeling for a long time that people refuse to listen to scientists. The following is from an article on Ars Technica: 'It's hardly a secret that large segments of the population choose not to accept scientific data because it conflicts with their predefined beliefs: economic, political, religious, or otherwise. But many studies have indicated that these same people aren't happy with viewing themselves as anti-science, which can create a state of cognitive dissonance. That has left psychologists pondering the methods that these people use to rationalize the conflict. A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology [abstract here] takes a look at one of these methods, which the authors term "scientific impotence" — the decision that science can't actually address the issue at hand properly.' The study found that 'regardless of whether the information presented confirmed or contradicted [the subjects'] existing beliefs, all of them came away from the reading with their beliefs strengthened."
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The "Scientific Impotence" Excuse

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  • Most people... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:31PM (#32379138)

    ... aren't intelligent enough to assess the quality of their own thinking. In fact most people aren't even able to think straight most of the time. The human mind is not built for the kind of obtuse rationality that scientists often communicate in.

    Scientists really have to do a better job at communicating clearly with less jargon, I think part of the problem is not being able to demonstrate the effects in a tangible way that is undenibale. I think the use of metaphors and communicating complex things in terms of everyday things that people can understand would go a long ways to help people understanding the contradictions.

    You really have to catch people in contradictions in a public venue with an argument that is simple to understand and you'd look like an idiot for not accepting.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Omnifarious ( 11933 ) *

      You really have to catch people in contradictions in a public venue with an argument that is simple to understand and you'd look like an idiot for not accepting.

      And even then people frequently get really defensive and look for ways to attack rather than listen and/or accept the facts.

    • Re:Most people... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:48PM (#32379448)
      There is no polite way to tell someone that the science directly conflicts with the religious/political/social tenets that they've been taught were sacred since they were a child. It's not the understanding that's the problem. It's the *implications* that people have a hard time accepting. Some people just can't handle the idea that Pluto's original classification as a "planet" was a mistake, after having been taught that it was a planet for their entire lives. Uncertainty is scary. And the idea that new science can come along and just yank away your most basic beliefs at any time is just too much for most common folk to bear.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by nine-times ( 778537 )

        There is no polite way to tell someone that the science directly conflicts with the religious/political/social tenets that they've been taught were sacred since they were a child. It's not the understanding that's the problem. It's the *implications* that people have a hard time accepting.

        I also think there's another side of that problem that people fail to consider: It's often not the bare fact of "what something is" that people are afraid of losing, but the "how do I lead my life" implications that go along with it. Religious people aren't just upset because you're telling them that their imaginary friend isn't real, but because you're simultaneously telling them that they can't rely on any of their beliefs or any of their existing moral/ethical views. It occurs to them that you're sayin

    • Re:Most people... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:02PM (#32379730)
      "Scientists really have to do a better job at communicating clearly with less jargon,"

      This is not as simple as you make it seem; many scientific results have subtle but important facets that require highly specific language (i.e. jargon) to properly clarify. It is the difference between humans being descendants of chimpanzees and humans sharing a common ancestor with chimpanzees -- a very common point of confusion that stems from attempts to describe the theory of evolution in overly simple terms. When scientific results are described in vague-but-easy-to-understand terms, it puts ammunition in the hands of people who, for whatever reason, wish to attack science.

      "You really have to catch people in contradictions in a public venue with an argument that is simple to understand and you'd look like an idiot for not accepting."

      What is needed is a more educated populace, that can better understand the precise language of scientific results and the implications of those results. Then people who did not accept scientific results really would look like idiots, and they would stand out as idiots.
  • by logjon ( 1411219 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:32PM (#32379152)
    That the study was done entirely on slashdot posts.
  • Psychologists (Score:3, Insightful)

    by bsDaemon ( 87307 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:33PM (#32379170)

    Most of the people I know who fall under this description dislike psychologists the most of all scientists and/or academics. I doubt that this will help change anything; it'll probably just make it worse.

  • by Wonko the Sane ( 25252 ) * on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:35PM (#32379200) Journal

    Activists on both sides of an issue do the same thing. Each side chooses the evidence that supports their predetermined belief.

    The other side of "scientific impotence" is "appeal to authority".

    Once issues become politicalized it becomes very difficult to make a scientific judgement one way or another because of all the competing agendas and misinformation on both sides.

    • Logical fallacies (Score:5, Insightful)

      by twoallbeefpatties ( 615632 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:35PM (#32380370)
      The other side of "scientific impotence" is "appeal to authority".

      There was once a guy on my favorite forum that argued politics a lot, and his favorite trick was to link to an encyclopedia entry on logical fallacies every time someone made an argument against him, pointing out which fallacy they had made. I once asked openly if there was a logical fallacy for people who replied to every question with an accusation of a logical fallacy rather than just arguing the merits of the question. His reply was that there was - but he wouldn't tell me which one it is.

      The problem I have with your statement is that there are limits to the Appeal to Authority Fallacy. The A2AF would almost certainly come into play if, say, something was wrong with your company's business and you asked why it wasn't fixed, and you were told it wasn't being fixed because your boss said it was fine. The other stupid extreme there is that if your doctor says that you need a surgery but you argue that it's unnecessary, when your friends try to tell you that you should listen to your doctor, are you going to claim that they're just appealing to the doctor's authority?

      There's got to be a hair to split around the difference between appealing to an arbitrary / managerial authority and appealing to a knowledgable / professional authority. There's a point at which appealing to the authority of a person who is highly trained in a specific background with relevant application to a "hard" science, one that is testable and falsifiable, should be relevant against an opposition that does not have that same depth of experience.

      Once issues become politicalized it becomes very difficult to make a scientific judgement one way or another because of all the competing agendas and misinformation on both sides.

      Many of the truly controversial scientific actions that occur lately have been cases in which one side has a majority of scientists in agreement with them, while the other appeals to a very small subset of scientists who gain notoriety by positing contradictory theories, without even bringing up the issue of who may be funding either group or if they have the relevant scientific backgrounds. We're supposed to believe that the opinions of a few are supposed to be given equal weight and consideration as the greater opinion against them, even without published methods or peer examination. I've got a different logical fallacy for that - the false equivalency.

      And what you've just said is a well-known political tactic. If there's a scientific issue that comes out that certain people are nto comfortable with or stand to lose profits as a result, make it a political issue. Introduce contradictory evidence without fully sourcing it. When anyone says that your claims are biased and untrustworthy, claim the same thing right back at them. Claim that those scientists have just as much of an agenda as yours do. In this way, you can invalidate a scientific opinion in the public trust.
    • by Geof ( 153857 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:38PM (#32380434) Homepage

      People's understanding of issues is heavily determined by how they are framed. The frame sets the questions, which in turn point to the answers. Answering "Which side of the issue are you on?" means choosing one of exactly two sides.

      Once an issue is politicized like this it ceases to be a question of truth and becomes a matter of identity. You may ask, "Do you believe in evolution?" But that is not the question many people will answer. What they really hear is, "Do you believe in evolution, or are a God-fearing person like us?" Then their answer is not so much a negative rejection of evolution as a positive affirmation of who they are and their membership in a community.

      How did evolution become incompatible with being part of a community? This happened not by explicit argument, but by subtle framing of politics. You say that there are two sides to an issue. But that division into two is exactly the moment of politicization. Which side are you on? Are you with us or against us? Do you believe in evolution or do you believe in God?

      Would you sacrifice your friends and your community and your sense of who you are in order to believe in an abstract theory that has no bearing on your day-to-day life? I think it is perfectly rational to say no regardless of the evidence. We need community to give life meaning. It's in our blood as human beings. But community life is impoverished in our lonely society. We cling to it when we find it.

      Nor does this apply only to religious folk. Say you had a revelatory experience of God that showed evolution to be false. Imagine the social and personal implications of denying evolution. Would you believe, or would you imagine it was a hallucination? As an atheist, I can imagine the former would require a wrenching reconstruction of my identity and relationships to other people.

      What you say is true in general: people tend to choose the evidence that suits them (though this is not symmetrical: some people, groups and arguments are more honest than others). My point, however, is that the logic you are criticizing is embedded in the very language of your post. Your acceptance that there are two sides - not one, not three - is where the slippery slope begins.

  • by Luyseyal ( 3154 ) <(swaters) (at) (luy.info)> on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:35PM (#32379202) Homepage

    Part of the problem is that science is a moving target. Look at dietary and nutritional science. If you're a baby boomer, you've heard scientists say umpteen different things over the last 40 years. People don't mind some change, but they don't like their belief systems upturned regularly by a system that is founded on constant change, but says it speaks "the truth". The truth is very slippery. Look at Fred Hoyle. The guy just couldn't come to grips with the Big Bang. And yet, if you want to get technical about it, what we currently think is "the truth" about the origin of the universe is a collection of models that agree with the data to some extent. Some of these models are guaranteed to be overturned.

    Is it any wonder that people are resistant to the pressure to change?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bkpark ( 1253468 )

      The problem is with more with scientists (or pseudo-scientists, a.k.a. "social scientists" like psychologists) who present the frontiers of research, where "facts" change from year to year as settled science. There is a core of settled science that will not change in the next few millennia, such as Newtonian mechanics (plus special and general relativity, just because GPS system will have hard time working unless these are accounted for) as damn good approximation to every day experience, and no member of p

    • by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) * on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:17PM (#32380022) Homepage

      The truth is very slippery.

      Truth isn't slippery. Truth is absolute. The problem is that things are presented as truth when they are not. A scientist does a study and finds that cows fed fatty diets die of heart attacks more often than regular cows. That is truth. But that study is published, and by the time it gets to the ordinary human it comes out as a health book explaining why all fat is bad. That isn't truth. It is an interpretation: a generalization from a subset of scientific information summarized and handed down.

      The pseudo-scientists, news reporters, and pundits purport to offer truth when they offer interpretation. And after a while, the average person doesn't know what to believe any more.

      We see this on Slashdot all the time. A paper published in Nature, summarized by a reporter, published, blogged, and respun until "I found a way to improve transistor density 2.5%" becomes a Slashdot headline like "AI robots will take over the world by next Tuesday." Somewhere... there was a grain of truth behind that headline.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 28, 2010 @04:08PM (#32381044)

        A scientist does a study and finds that cows fed fatty diets die of heart attacks more often than regular cows. That is truth.

        No, that is theory, which the study failed to disprove. What is truth is that in the population studied by the scientist, death from heart attack was positively correlated with body fat percentage; and, generalizing, that there is a particular low p-value for observing that correlation if the hypothesis were not true and the sample were unbiased. Truth may be "absolute", but only when expressed in the correctly slippery context. You can blame the media for blowing things out of proportion, but you also have to realize what the GP is getting at.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by cvd6262 ( 180823 )

          Thank you.

          Those who deny scientific evidence out-of-hand probably don't understand science. Those who hold scientific evidence as absolute truth definitely don't understand science... Any many of those people call themselves scientists.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:37PM (#32379244)

    I think you'll find that most of the mistrust people harbour about scientists, and science in general, comes from the fact that the media tends to 'definitively' interpret the results of non-definitive studies. Or over-report studies that, when peer-reviewed, fall apart like a... well, like a poorly-built motorcycle.

    But never underestimate the power of hucksters operating under the guise of 'chiropractor', 'naturopath', or 'one who speaks for the man/men in the sky'. They tell you with a straight face that these people who have nothing to gain by lying, and who have dedicated their lives to understanding how things work through empirical research, and who aren't trying to take your money, are not to be trusted. The last few decades have given rise to a real resurgence of anecdotal 'fact' over the scientific method, and it's kind of scary.

  • by derrickh ( 157646 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:40PM (#32379300) Homepage

    I completely understand why many people aren't as quick to believe everything scientists say. Simply because scientific -fact- seems to change every few years. A few years ago scientists said there were 9 planets. Now there's 8. First there was no water on the moon, now there is. As far as science is concerned, theres no problem with updating facts and theories as new information is obtained. But most people don't work like that. As far as they're concerned, you're the same as the guy who keeps changing his story every time you ask a question.

    The problem is that scientists will call you ignorant or stupid if you stop believing every word they say just because you know there's a good chance of them saying something different in a short while.

    Religion on the other hand, rarely changes its story.


    • Exzachary. Science is the pursuit of knowledge, not its permanent acquisition. Belief presents itself as acquisition with no need to go any further.


    • by Bellegante ( 1519683 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:59PM (#32379680)
      An important detail is missing here: Scientists don't say those things! The media does. Scientists say "Based on our recent observations/experiments, there may be a correlation with this reading and proof of x." The media follows with "Science proves x beyond a doubt! Panic!"
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:06PM (#32379808)
      You seem to misunderstand science.

      First off, lets talk about pluto. There are no new "facts" here, just a standardization of definitions. There was a time when "planet" meant "anything big orbiting the sun". When it turned out there were millions of big things orbiting the sun, scientists needed to decide just how big a thing had to be. The only two serious options were one that would increase the number of planets immediately to 12 and probably upwards of 40 eventually, and one that would reduce the number of planets to 8 and probably leave it there.

      Next, water on the moon. We looked for water on the moon once, and didn't find it. Scientists announce "we can't find any water on the moon". Journalists announce "there is no water on the moon". Later, scientists crash a lump of metal into the moon with the energy of a small nuclear bomb, and find that there *is* some water, just deeper then they were able to look before. It's no more "scientific fact" changing then it would be if you looked everywhere for your keys and couldn't find them, announced that you probably left them in your car... then found them under the couch in a more through search.

      The other scientific development often brought up in this regard is the whole "we once thought the earth was flat" thing. Guess what? We're never going to find out that we were wrong all along, and the earth really is flat. Never. We're never going to find out that the sun rotates around the earth. The reason is because scientific *facts* never change. Scientific hypotheses change every day, and theories change once in a while, but *facts* never change.

      And in any case, which is better... being absolutely firm and unchanging (but wrong), or admitting your errors switching to the truth?
  • by newcastlejon ( 1483695 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:45PM (#32379392)

    ...choose not to accept scientific data because it conflicts with their predefined beliefs...

    In other words, people are prejudiced, whether one's bias is a matter of religion or a firm belief in the aether doesn't really matter. Certainly there are those that oppose anything a person in a lab coat (or a tweed jacket) might say but this is well known behaviour. If the purpose of the paper was just to give a name to this phenomena then personally I'd rather they came up with something more descriptive rather than pandering to the need for a snappy headline.

    I don't see what this has to do with science specifically: I'd have just as much luck convincing a creationist that Buddha put the bones there as I would getting them to accept evolution through natural selection. If someone is set in their ways you'll be hard pressed to convince them no matter how you came to whatever it is you're arguing.

  • by Man On Pink Corner ( 1089867 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:45PM (#32379400)

    ... more like an entitlement mindset.

    Religion, and the idea of God in general, springs from the basic notion that the universe owes you something. Eternal life, accountability, a reason to live, the "answers."

    Science, on the other hand, starts from the premise that whatever secrets Mother Nature holds will have to be earned through hard work. There are no promises of results and no guarantees that understanding will ever be reached.

    So is it any wonder that so many people take the easy way out and choose faith instead?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:51PM (#32379508)

    For me, without being able to replicate experimental results personally, perform higher math easily, or penetrate the often obtuse language of scientific publications means that while I can consider a hypothesis or theory, I'm basically doing what those who follow the teachings of a religion are doing...interpreting someone else's work by using my common experience.

    The fact that I believe science is largely accurate and a better way to describe our surroundings than religion is as much faith as someone who believes in their religion. Scientific Impotence is another way of saying "I'd like to recognize that alternate faith, but I still think mine is more valid."

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by anilg ( 961244 )

      Science is not faith! Science is a methodology leading to statements that can be proven or disproven. Faith (as in religious faith) is "Here's some truths".

      interpreting someone else's work by using my common experience.

      Yeah. Except that's all you can do with religion, as opposed to science.

      To call science faith is disingenuous at best, and blatantly dishonent at worst..

  • by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @02:54PM (#32379578)
    why people don't believe demonstrable facts, and instead concentrate on how we can exploit that. The churches figured this all out centuries ago, surely the scientific community can too.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:11PM (#32379900) Journal
    How do supporters of this preposterous, so called, "scientific impotence theory" account for the fact that Science produces the world's entire supply of Viagra?

    Scientia potestas est, and sometimes it is willing to share...
  • "choose to accept" (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mapkinase ( 958129 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:31PM (#32380300) Homepage Journal

    " 'It's hardly a secret that large segments of the population choose not to accept scientific data"

    The problem of the current society is not the ignorance or non-acceptance of science by population.

    Lay people do not have to "accept" or "reject" science. Science becomes relevant to people only in the form of technology. For example, what was the origin of species has absolutely no relevance to practical life of people, for example, so people do not have to "accept" or "reject" the origin of species. In the contrary, "inheritance" and "mutability" as well as "selection" ("natural selection" proved by the way useless - too slow) are very relevant to people and have been used (without much pomposity) generations and generations before Darwin.

    On the other hand, people do not have to "accept" or "reject" the "ideology" of theoretical mechanics on the ideological level, because people CAN use it, and if they are using it without knowledge (sic! knowledge, not "acceptance") they are in very practical trouble, and if they are using it right, then they get immediate very unequivocal practical results, and those results exclude any ideological "acceptance" or "rejection".

    Face it. There is useful science, and there is useless "science". One of them IS actually science, and the other is not.

    Another point: if you have to forcefeed science to people, then there is no such "science". True science does not need ideology. True science is obvious (that's what my late scientific Teacher taught me, by the way, to work on a paper until the results become obvious).

    Que to "troll" moderation.

  • by nlawalker ( 804108 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:36PM (#32380394)

    This just in... stupid people aren't happy when they realize they're stupid. Full story at 11.

  • by drewhk ( 1744562 ) on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:43PM (#32380500)

    but I still maintain that it is the best way for pursuing knowledge. In fact, science is all about renewing itself, reviewing itself and progress. Yes, I know that there are a lot of horseshit out there masquerading as science. There are authoritative pricks, there are oppressive fuckers, braindead platonicists, opportunistic paper-pumpers. Still. It. Is. The. Way.

  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Friday May 28, 2010 @03:50PM (#32380608) Homepage Journal

    1) Children not being taught critical thinking and have no training to deal with alternative aarguements to their own viewpoint
    2) Learning that contrary to what the GOP wants you to thinks, changing you mind when new data comes in is NOT a bad thing.
    3) Religion. It's very nature teaches people not to question things they believe.

Disraeli was pretty close: actually, there are Lies, Damn lies, Statistics, Benchmarks, and Delivery dates.