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People Are Allergic to the Facts

New research finds we trust experts who agree with our own opinions, suggesting that subjective feelings override scientific information.

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The bottom line: We seek out, and find comforting confirmation from, experts who agree with our pre-existing beliefs. The researchers call this a matter of “cultural cognition.” As Kahan put it in a recent editorial in the journal Nature:

“People find it disconcerting to believe that behavior that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behavior that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.”

Whether that intense inclination is exclusively peer-based or due in part to internal factors, such as a genetic predisposition to a particular ideological outlook, remains an open question. But either way, scientists and policymakers who base their decisions on science have a problem. Kahan and his colleagues offer some possible ways around this dilemma, but they’re admittedly sketchy and tentative.

“To overcome this effect,” they write, “communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.” The researches recommend “crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences.”

Kahan gives a couple of examples in his Nature editorial, suggesting that people with individualistic values might be more receptive to climate change arguments “if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness.

“Similarly, people with an egalitarian outlook are less likely to reflexively dismiss evidence of the safety of nanotechnology if they are made aware of the part that nanotechnology might play in environmental protection, and not just its usefulness in the manufacture of consumer goods,” he adds.

In other words, scientists need to do some radical reframing if they hope to get through to people whose world view is threatened by their results. While there’s no guarantee that effort will succeed, Kahan and his colleagues convincingly argue that the effort is “critical to enlightened democratic policymaking.” Otherwise, our gut instincts will remain the experts we rely upon the most.

Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Ventura County Star.

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