“So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.”

January 13th, 2014 § 5 comments

Reviewing:

Munro, G. D. (2010). The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief‐Threatening Scientific Abstracts. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(3), 579-600. (Full Text)

 

At times we all probably feel like we are the only ones who are right on the internet. Hopefully you have the humility and good sense to realize that this is an impossible state of affairs. But why is it so difficult to get past our own biases? Answering that question is one of the major goals of this blog.

Arguing with evidence

Personal opinions and anecdotes make for unconvincing arguments. Do scientific arguments fare any better? The title of this post references something Red Auerbach once said about a study by the psychologist Tom Gilovich that debunked the “hot hand” phenomenon in basketball. Clearly Mr. Auerbach was unimpressed. But science is a way of knowing that our society invests with a lot of authority, which is why actors assume white lab coats in drug commercials. People also believe that certain topics cannot in principle be answered by science (see Steven Jay Gould’s NOMA for a popular example involving science and religion). How do we know which method best suits which area of inquiry? Welcome to the black hole of the internet! Not 4chan, but epistemology, where certitude is pounded into ambiguity.

Ambiguity is what fuels motivated reasoning. People who have sufficient motivation to reach a certain conclusion will hack their way through a tangled undergrowth of competing ideas, collecting supporting evidence and discarding contradictory evidence; they will find whatever ambiguity exists and exploit it in the service of confirming their correctness. Scientific evidence is not impervious to the blade. Even if that evidence represents the pinnacle of modern scientific practice, opponents will find ways to dismiss its results, including denying that science can even answer the question.

This is the effect Munro examines in this article. The author wants to know if this denial does indeed take place, and if it erodes trust in science as a way of understanding the world in general.

Persuasion

How do people respond when their beliefs are challenged? They can change their beliefs and thank their interlocutors for showing them the nature of their egregious folly. Snark aside, people don’t often do this. Instead they counterargue, attack the source of the message, or avoid the challenging information altogether. However, Munro contends that source derogation is unlikely here—the trust our society places in science makes trashing it socially undesirable, and people usually lack the information necessary to question the motives or the skills of the scientists. Counterarguing is also unlikely, he contends, because it requires people to be conversant with that particular area of research.

Even still, there are larger cultural narratives surrounding evolution and global warming that allow people to attack scientists and their motives, and which also provide pre-packaged debating points. A study like this demands a body of research that is uncontaminated by these narratives, but with a topic that is still controversial, and acknowledged to be within the bounds of science. For this study, Munro chose research on the relationship between homosexuality and mental illness.

Cognitive dissonance

Why is the scientific discounting strategy a problem, aside from being annoying and counterproductive? Munro worries that discounting the validity of science to address a particular question may lead to pervasive skepticism of science overall. To understand why this might happen, you need to know a bit about cognitive dissonance theory.

Dissonance is the subjective feeling of discomfort caused when two or more cognitions are in disagreement. A cognition here means a proposition about the world that a person takes as true or false (e.g., “X is the cause of Y”). When someone’s beliefs are challenged, this results in a cognition (e.g., “Science says X does not cause Y”) that disagrees with one or more existing cognitions (e.g., “I believe X causes Y”), creating dissonance (look here for more complexity). How is this dissonance actually reduced?

Research on cognitive dissonance theory finds that people often add a new cognition to the mix that serves to eliminate the tension between the other two (e.g., “science can’t even study whether X causes Y”). But the same research also finds that this new cognition doesn’t simply go away after it has done its job; rather, people adopt these cognitions as part of a newly consistent set of beliefs. People need to think that they hold their beliefs for good reasons, and that they’re based on an unbiased perception of reality (a concept called naïve realism). Creating a new belief to use as a mercenary in a single argument does not inspire confidence in the veracity of one’s belief system (how likely is it that science is only impotent in relation to belief that you happen to be defending at the moment?). To avoid this distressing position, people don’t avoid creating new cognitions—they internalize them. If the new cognition involves scientific impotence, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that people will endorse scientific impotence in general.

Munro therefore asks:

1. Will people endorse scientific impotence if the evidence challenges a belief they hold?
2. And if they do, will this impotence extend to other topics as well?

The paper

Study 1

To study these questions, Munro challenged participants’ beliefs using scientific evidence, and then gave them a chance to dismiss the results by claiming that science cannot actually answer the question. He then asked participants to rate the ability of science to answer unrelated questions, providing a test of his impotence generalization hypothesis.

Munro used summaries of five scientific studies as evidence, modified to all either challenge or confirm one of the points of view. He split the participants into two groups—those who believed that gay people are mentally ill, and those who didn’t. Half of each belief group then had their views challenged, and the other half had them confirmed.

Study 2

The second study closely mirrored the first, except Munro tested generalization by having participants choose their preferred source for information about an unrelated topic, with scientific research being one of five choices.

Results

Regardless of their position on the relationship between homosexuality and mental illness, if science challenged participants’ views, they were more likely to see science as unable to even answer the question (once again, no one is free from these biases). Furthermore, participants whose beliefs on homosexuality were challenged believed science was unable to address additional unrelated questions, while those whose beliefs were confirmed thought that science was a superior source of information. No one changed their beliefs. Given cognitive dissonance theory’s predictions that unresolved dissonance will lead to belief change, its absence indicates that scientific discounting helped them resist the challenge.

Comments

People will go to great lengths to deny evidence that implicates a belief they hold. The topic used in this study—the relationship between homosexuality and mental illness—lies clearly within the realm of science. If people will deny this fact to protect their beliefs, then strong arguments are not sufficient to effect induce persuasion.

Critiques

1. This study is underpowered. Unfortunately, this reflects the common state of social psychology research. In fact, most studies in social psychology have less power than this one.

(Briefly: knowing the measured difference between groups, the number of people in the study, and the anticipated false positive rate, it is possible to calculate the likelihood that the study would have found a true effect. This is called statistical power. The commonly accepted standard for power is 0.80, meaning 80% likelihood of finding a true effect. I calculated the statistical power for their main analyses, and the values all work out to around 0.69.)

2. Munro stretches with his conclusion about the generalization effect. I think it’s correct to say that those whose beliefs have been challenged by science will subsequently take a dim view of science, but I don’t think this represents a broad erosion of trust in the scientific method. Dissonance nudges beliefs, it doesn’t swing them. Because our society holds science in high esteem, it would probably take many instances of this discounting to fundamentally affect overall belief in the power of science. I have no doubt that these science deniers actually exist. But denying science means staking out a bold position against considerable evidence. People can only take such drastic stances when their motivation to defend their beliefs outweighs the ludicrousness of denying that science can study something so obviously within its purview. When the motivation recedes, the effect will probably disappear. It may even reverse if the scientific conclusions are swapped in an ensuing exercise. This would provide a more definitive test of the reach and permanence of the scientific impotence excuse.

Conclusions

With sufficient motivation, and enough desperation, people will endorse even the most absurd arguments to defend their beliefs. Despite the paper’s flaws, Munro’s research adds another interesting and disconcerting wrinkle to this phenomenon. Next time someone tells you science has nothing to add to a debate, call them out on it. Better yet, send them here! I’m sure they’ll thank you.

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§ 5 Responses to “So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.”"

  • […] to the simple fact that it accords with his preferences, do you think he would reconsider? Again, probably not. How about […]

  • TedDepth says:

    “But denying science means staking out a bold position against considerable evidence. People can only take such drastic stances when their motivation to defend their beliefs outweighs the ludicrousness of denying that science can study something so obviously within its purview. When the motivation recedes, the effect will probably disappear”.
    Well said! I also consider that this is precisely the eternal problem of science.

  • AndrewJA says:

    It is very interesting!
    Martin Heidegger was the one who came to the conclusion that “science does not think”, and I fully agree with him.

  • BigNick says:

    This is really great post!

  • Aaron says:

    Let me quote the best part of rhis article:
    “Ambiguity is what fuels motivated reasoning. People who have sufficient motivation to reach a certain conclusion will hack their way through a tangled undergrowth of competing ideas, collecting supporting evidence and discarding contradictory evidence; they will find whatever ambiguity exists and exploit it in the service of confirming their correctness. Scientific evidence is not impervious to the blade. Even if that evidence represents the pinnacle of modern scientific practice, opponents will find ways to dismiss its results, including denying that science can even answer the question.”

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