More on Evidence: The Importance of “Surprising Validators”

July 5th, 2014 at 3:27 pm

As an add-on to yesterday’s meditation on empirical evidence, a commenter points me to this interesting piece on how our political or religious convictions can trump our knowledge.

“…more people know what scientists think about high-profile scientific controversies than polls suggest; they just aren’t willing to endorse the consensus when it contradicts their political or religious views. This finding helps us understand why…factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction, health care reform and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.”

You might personally understand and even believe the science of evolution or climate change, but if your religion, ideology, or the group with whom you closely identify forbids such beliefs, you’ll find a way to suppress them.

This adds another important layer of complexity to the issues I raised yesterday.  It’s not enough to worry about what constitutes high-quality evidence.  Establishing facts is just the first hurdle.  An even higher hurdle exists when the facts challenge peoples’ belief systems (other commenters made similar points).

One way through this dilemma is for icons of your movement to validate the facts.  This reminded me of related research I’ve come across suggesting that it takes a surprising validator to change minds.  That is, if a trusted and elevated leader essentially gives group members permission or clearance to accept facts that they already know, they’re likely to do so.

Someone may, for example, really understand and believe, at least in their logical mind, the process of evolution.  But if they’re a member of group—a group that’s deeply important to them—wherein membership means disbelieving evolution, then the desire to maintain the emotional connection with the group will trump the known facts of evolution, despite the fact that the concept is endorsed by their logical mind.

However, if a group leader alters the belief system to allow evolution as an accepted explanation of how things work, then logic meets conviction and facts prevail.  Such leaders work like gate keepers deciding which facts are allowed into the system and which are kept out.

That sounds like awfully tough going, however, especially when group identity is intimately tied up in denying some key set of facts.  Disbelief of climate change or belief in trickle-down economics isn’t a pet, side-theory for anti-environmentalists (e.g., those who profit from extracting fossil fuels) and anti-tax crusaders.  They’re the whole shooting match.

So if you believe this, your job of convincing people with fact-based evidence just got harder.  Not only do you have to boost the weakening signal-to-noise ratio with strong, credible analysis.  You’ve got to convince their leaders to open the gate and let these facts into their system.

Good luck with that…

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9 comments in reply to "More on Evidence: The Importance of “Surprising Validators”"

  1. Kim Batchelor says:

    Thanks for this analysis, Jared. This is why I, as a Christian, feel it’s so important for other Christians to reframe these issues in this context, to hopefully begin to create the space for facts to fit into the spiritual belief.Not an easy task, but one that’s well worthwhile.

  2. Smith says:

    I disagree entirely with the premise of convincing “leaders”. The leaders who question climate change, evolution, and austerity, are followers, mostly of money, campaign contributors, colleagues, assorted apparatchiks, but also of voter taste. Then again some leaders deliberately mislead, typically on wedge issues to gain votes. In either case, there is no way to convince the leader of the truth, he knows it already, but has overriding reasons to ignore it.
    A better idea might be getting members to switch groups. For this to happen, the old group has to fail, often catastrophically, and the new group has to be successful.
    Keynesian economics to alleviate depression, entry into WWII, the fall of McCarthyism, the rise of civil rights, belief the earth orbits the sun, none of these required convincing the opposition leaders.

    • Robert Buttons says:

      The followers of austerity chase political contributions??????? Do you seriously think lobbyists are telling politicians “Please please don’t spend money on my project”????

      • Smith says:

        The followers of austerity chase political contributions. This is a no brainer. Lobbyists tell politicians to “spend money on my project” of course. But people giving campaign contributions say don’t spend money on enhanced safety net programs which eventually are paid for with higher taxes, fiscal stimulus, or anything that would aid recover and hence the Democrats claim to successfully govern. Take a moment. Austerity followers are Republicans who chase political contributions.

        • Robert Buttons says:

          Safety net programs are infiltrated with lobbyists, especially. How about FRAC- food research and action center–they advocate for more SNAP spending. Here is a list of their supporters:

          Any surprise Kellogg, Am Beverage assn, ConAgra, General Mills, PepsiCo,etc,etc are on the list?

          Here is a list of the biggest political donors:
          Which ones advocate for austerity? Also notice the top 16 are balanced or tilt democrat

  3. Rima Regas says:

    Trusted sources are crucial in this discussion. One has to worry about the decline in people’s faith in our institutions. Those have to include the press.

  4. jeff says:

    Well, Galileo had a few problems with this also, things have toned down a bit over the years.

  5. jhm says:

    Getting people to think about what they mean when they believe they “know” something might be the place to start:

    A Manual for Creating Atheists
    by Peter Boghossian

  6. Flex says:

    The research is interesting, but the concept is not new.

    Many years ago, when I first entered the political realm, I was taught that while pounding the pavement was one of the most effective means of getting votes, the other thing which must be done is to convince the stakeholders in a community that you can be trusted.

    I’ve since seen this idea crop up in management studies. If you need to make a change to the culture of a company, which is by far the hardest thing to change, you need to identify the stakeholders who can use moral suasion to steer the culture in the direction the company needs to go.

    In both cases the stakeholders may not hold the highest positions in a community, but are still the most respected and trusted. While ministers or shift leaders are likely stakeholders, a respected family or a long-employed line-worker are also likely to be stakeholders. Get them to move, and the rest will follow.

    Can stakeholders be influenced by external factors? Like campaign contributions? Sure. But that doesn’t make them less important in persuading the community to change, even if those external factors are known and well-documented. Even if those external factors have an obvious agenda which will clearly harm the constituents. If the stakeholders believe it’s the right thing, the people will follow.

    Of course, which the rapid shift in what we call community these days, knowing who the stakeholders are, and even where the bounds of a community are, is much harder. One community I belong to is local, and everyone within a few miles knows who I am, or knows someone who knows who I am. Very handy as a local politician.

    But I have another community of friends which is nationwide, which share common interests or are friends from high school and collage. Some of these common interest communities are far larger than my local one. I deliberately maintain a low profile on them, but there are leaders who could use their platform to endorse, even tentatively, a national campaign and have an impact on the results. Most of these people recognize that an endorsement would lose some membership, but making that endorsement would also persuade a lot of fence-sitters that there is something to be said for the position being taken. This wouldn’t be those communities taking a position, but the stakeholders in those communities merely expressing their opinion on that position.