Respectful Insolence

The more things change…

John is sick and tired of antievolutionists. Who can blame him? As he points out, they are utterly immune to evidence or reason:

I was wrong. Very wrong. Information isn’t what makes people change their minds. Experience is, and generally nobody has much experience of the facts of biology that underwrite evolution. The so-called “deficit model” of the public understanding of science, which assumes that all they need is more information, is false.


I could also point out that this is the very reason that alternative medicine to this day so regularly trumps scientific, evidence-based medicine in popularity. Few people have experienced a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. To them it sounds like so much gobbledy-gook. But the do know that either they or their mom or their friend (or the dreaded “friend of a friend”) took this or that homeopathic remedy and felt better. Or they do know that they or their mom or their friend (or the dreaded “friend of a friend”) had a horrendous experience with a medicine or treatment that their doctor prescribed. Experience trumps science.

How to overcome this natural human tendency is something I’ve been wrestling with ever since I took an interest in alternative medicine and quackery and why both are so attractive to so many people. I don’t have a very good answer yet, but I plan on continuing to try to find one.

Comments

  1. #1 Joe
    September 3, 2007

    “… A very early example of randomisation and double blinding was an evaluation of homeopathy conducted in Nuremberg in 1835 …”
    http://www.jameslindlibrary.org/trial_records/19th_Century/lohner/lohner-commentary.html

  2. #2 Sastra
    September 3, 2007

    People are more comfortable with stories than statistics, but they can learn particular instances where the general trumps the personal — and, if we’re lucky, that may be where the equally natural tendency to make analogies comes in handy.

    For instance, most people (including alties and creationists) understand that racism — the belief that certain races are inherently “smarter” than other races — is technically wrong. It’s not true.

    So what then would they say to a friend who tells them “but I know a black guy (or a Chinese or a native American) who is dumb; I know a bunch of dumb ones; let me tell you some stories, let me tell you a story about a dumb black guy I know”? If they themselves respond to this by telling their friend about studies done over large populations controlling for environmental and cultural factors which show no genetic difference in intelligence — how would they then feel if their friend told them they were “denying my own experience?” Or that they were “explaining away” something genuinely stupid that someone did, and refusing to draw the proper inference?

    They’d say “tough.” Doesn’t matter how many stupid people of Race X whom you personally know. Doesn’t matter how many really good stories you can tell, from your “own personal experience.” Statistics matter. They get this, right here, when it comes to racism.

    Ok. People find it easy to reason with analogies. Make a rough analogy. Alternative medicine is sorta like that. Controlled studies are more reliable than anecdote. You can’t defeat the scientific method just by telling more stories, whether it’s alt med or racism.

    They may (will) still argue, but perhaps they can shift their focus a bit, and understand the issue in a different way. Maybe. I hope. It’s an idea, anyway (is this “framing?”)

  3. #3 Stephen Downes
    September 3, 2007

    Well it’s not “natural human tendency”. People can reason well if they have been taught to reason well in childhood. Perception is, indeed, what changes people’s minds, but what is perceived depends on what has been taught. Our children today grow up believing anecdotal evidence because they’re fed a steady diet of it as though it were science, from their teachers, from their parents, from the media. They are not taught about causal reasoning at all; they are not shown how to see examples of principles of reason (such as categorical logic, or propositional logic, or the principles of induction and probability) in their daily lives. By the time they’re adults, it’s too late. They wont be convinced by reason, and they actually see the world differently, and this is what produces the ‘irrefutable evidence’ that convinces them.

  4. #4 Brian
    September 3, 2007

    I think everyone in science today struggles with this difficulty. The closest I have come to any possible solution is to understand that most people are compelled not by facts, but by stories. We can outline scientific findings til the cows come home, and still be trumped by a single compelling story (heard from a friend of a friend). It is the power of myth which drives so many of us. The myth becomes more real than the facts.

    I wonder if the key is for us to craft and present the “myths” of science. Certainly not in the sense of spreading falseness, or suger-coating the truth, but perhaps we need to become storytellers as well as purveyors of facts.

  5. #5 Tom
    September 3, 2007

    Isn’t education the proven medicine for ignorance?

    Given that we’re stuck with the fact that half the people in the world are dumber than the other half–maybe more–the solution, it seems to me, is to help everyone realize you can’t, as the bumper snicker says, believe everything you think.

    Ray Bradbury got it right when he wrote, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

    A friend who teaches animation at the San Diego Art Institute was making the point to first years students that animation is about telling a story, and animators need to know how to tell a story. When he asked them how many had a read a novel in the last year not one held up there hand.

    Ignorance is bliss?

  6. #6 Tom
    September 3, 2007

    Isn’t education the proven medicine for ignorance?

    Given that we’re stuck with the fact that half the people in the world are dumber than the other half–maybe more–the solution, it seems to me, is to help everyone realize you can’t, as the bumper snicker says, believe everything you think.

    Ray Bradbury got it right when he wrote, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

    A friend who teaches animation at the San Diego Art Institute was making the point to first years students that animation is about telling a story, and animators need to know how to tell a story. When he asked them how many had a read a novel in the last year not one held up their hand.

    Ignorance is bliss?

  7. #7 Carrie
    September 3, 2007

    One of the best lessons I’ve learned is that you can’t logic people out of views they haven’t used logic to arrive at. The anti-evolutionists are a great example. Evolution is NOT a science, therefore we can’t use science to prove that it didn’t happen.

    Same with homeopathy. I will admit that knowing whatever treatment (homeopathic or not) worked for a friend does lend at least a little more credence to it, but if this friend put a tapeworm in their ear to remove excess wax (this is completely false, people), I don’t care how good it works.

    As Stephen so wisely pointed out, reason can be taught by education. But education can also be scared out of you. And I think some of this “alternative” stuff, from anti-evolution to homeopathy, is out of fear. Drugs are bad. They’re synthetic. Never mind that snake venom is natural and loves to leech onto your synapses. Nothing is free from risk. And an important part of education should be teaching people how to evaluate, well, life.

    Rather depressing, really, when you consider how few people can.

  8. #8 Tom
    September 3, 2007

    Carrie writes: “Evolution is NOT a science, therefore we can’t use science to prove that it didn’t happen.”

    Er . . . you lost me there.

    I trust you mean that people who say evolution isn’t scientific can’t be convinced that it is because they don’t understand science, or for that matter, logic?

  9. #9 alibim
    September 3, 2007

    I think you’re spot-on, Brian – we need to tell the stories of science. IMO that’s the best way, perhaps the only real way, to get people to develop a feel for what science is, how it’s done, its history & the personalities of those involved. Not least because if we want kids to get into science, they have to ‘see’ themselves as scientists, & that involves recognising that scientists are real people, warts & all.
    I’ve found it works for teaching about evolution, anyway :-)

  10. #10 JMG3Y
    September 3, 2007

    Perhaps the problem lies in those general reasoning and belief propensities contained within our ancient brain that increased our ancestor’s survival probability compared to those of our species that did not have such tendencies. Now living within the cocoon of our current human-developed and controlled environment involving much different means of communication at un-naturally high volumes and transmitting this culture to our offspring these have become detrimental biases in our reasoning and belief development rather than advantages. Our current risk is very much from ourselves rather than from the predator or the failure of the natural food supply.

    This ancient brain likely isn’t giving way to a modern brain better adapted to our current environment anytime soon.

  11. #11 James
    September 4, 2007

    Actually there is a blog essentially dedicated to this question:

    http://www.overcomingbias.com

    I think the idea of teaching critical thinking is essential. I think that teaching children the principles of statistics would be a good idea as well.

    I wonder if the essential goal of existing education is misplaced. The essence of critical thinking is not just beleiving what you are told. The current educational model seems to aim at the opposite, at least at primary and secondary level. It may be a bit late to expect university students to pick up the habit of thinking for themselves.

  12. #12 Bongi
    September 4, 2007

    in my country the official government opinion is that traditional healers have an important role to play, especially in the treatment of aids. a large proportion of people first go to their sangoma. only when they are really sick and possibly beyond help do they seek tested antiretrovirals.

    in the long run, possibly cheaper for the government because so many more people die before becoming a financial burden.

  13. #13 JMG3Y
    September 4, 2007

    IMO, the problem with the education system’s current approach, K-12 and higher ed is that it is teaching using the paradigm that our brain begins as a blank slate and that just simply filling it with the correct knowledge works, that if just supplied with the correct facts, sound reasoning will result. IMO the recent findings in cognitive and evolutionary psychology must become widely understood by educators at all levels before educational results will begin to change significantly. Better yet, all students at some level should be taught about these inherent biases in our ancient brains and how to minimize them. IMO simply teaching critical thinking will not accomplish that end. Students should understand why we have to follow the scientific method to understand nature (philosophy of science) and why the method developed as it did (history of science).

  14. #14 Ronald
    September 4, 2007

    I recently spoke to a woman at a party who runs a practice in bach flower remedies. I asked her if she really believed in it, talked about double blind randomized trials etcetera. She said “I know it works because it worked for me”…
    This points to a psychological conundrum: If it doesn’t work she was not ill (and as a consequence was ‘faking’ somehow). If it does work her ‘integrity’ is not diminished. Therefore it has to have worked…
    I think this also is why the stories on miracle cures propagate, it is not only (or perhaps mainly) to convince others but to convince the story tellers themselves: it enhances their credibility.

  15. #15 Ronald
    September 4, 2007

    I recently spoke to a woman at a party who runs a practice in bach flower remedies. I asked her if she really believed in it, talked about double blind randomized trials etcetera. She said “I know it works because it worked for me”…
    This points to a psychological conundrum: If it doesn’t work she was not ill (and as a consequence was ‘faking’ somehow). If it does work her ‘integrity’ is not diminished. Therefore it has to have worked…
    I think this also is why the stories on miracle cures propagate, it is not only (or perhaps mainly) to convince others but to convince the story tellers themselves: it enhances their credibility.

  16. #16 Ronald
    September 4, 2007

    I recently spoke to a woman at a party who runs a practice in bach flower remedies. I asked her if she really believed in it, talked about double blind randomized trials etcetera. She said “I know it works because it worked for me”…
    This points to a psychological conundrum: If it doesn’t work she was not ill (and as a consequence was ‘faking’ somehow). If it does work her ‘integrity’ is not diminished. Therefore it has to have worked…
    I think this also is why the stories on miracle cures propagate, it is not only (or perhaps mainly) to convince others but to convince the story tellers themselves: it enhances their credibility.

  17. #17 Ronald
    September 4, 2007

    sorry for the triple post pls remove the 2 spurious ones if possible

  18. #18 Carrie
    September 4, 2007

    Oh dear. This serves me right for trying to multi-task.

    What I meant to say (that I so clearly didn’t) was that *creationism* is not a science, and therefore science cannot be used to convince those who believe it otherwise. I have never met an anti-evolutionist who doesn’t have some reason why such and such piece of data supports their view. This fossil is an anomaly. We’re dating things wrong (by DNA, carbon, etc). And so on. Since they’re not looking at data to support their beliefs, showing them more of said data is probably not going to convince them.

    It’s similar for homeopathy. If you didn’t reason your way in, you can’t reason your way out.

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