When your preconceptions disagree with the evidence…

…your preconceptions are always right. According to your mind, at least. According to reality, they may be less right.

Another chapter from the book Science is not normal, Ben Goldacre of Bad Science has written a thoughtful article on the phenomenon described above: People will tend to reject the evidence when it conflicts with their preconceptions. Moreover, when enough evidence conflicts with a person’s preconceptions, they become distrusting of evidence itself! Researchers are calling this effect “Scientific Impotence”.

Then they were asked about the research they had read, and were asked to rate their agreement with the following statement: “The question addressed in the studies summarized… is one that cannot be answered using scientific methods.”
As you would expect, the people whose pre-existing views had been challenged were more likely to say that science simply cannot be used to measure whether homosexuality is associated with mental illness.

This frightening research is also discussed here.

What does this mean for teaching the public to be more scientifically literate? If you present folks with too much scientific evidence they disagree with, they will begin to think of science as bad at generating knowledge. After all, science got it wrong so many times.

However, if you present folks with too little scientific evidence they disagree with, they wont learn the joy of the paradigm shifts that characterize science; you get to learn a better way of thinking about a familiar problem. What is the point of science if beliefs and preconceptions never get challenged by evidence? Talk about impotence!

Science is not normal. People are not naturally wired to think like scientists. It takes special training, and the path from normal thinking to thinking like a scientist is not a well understood one. But it’s worthwhile to walk that path and encourage others to do the same. But how?

Tricky, tricky stuff. What to do?


3 thoughts on “When your preconceptions disagree with the evidence…

  1. If the moderator is EXTREMELY knowledgeable about physics, would appreciate him/her contacting me at jw.brakebill@yahoo.com

    I have a device that I’m not sure how to calculate and would like input.


    J.W. Brakebill

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