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

January 13th, 2014 § 5 comments § permalink


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.

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