Why People “Fly from Facts”

Mar 8, 2015

Credit: Jo Naylor via flickr

By Troy Campbell and Justin Friesen

“There was a scientific study that showed vaccines cause autism.”

“Actually, the researcher in that study lost his medical license, and overwhelming research since then has shown no link between vaccines and autism.”

“Well, regardless, it’s still my personal right as a parent to make decisions for my child.”

Does that exchange sound familiar: a debate that starts with testable factual statements, but then, when the truth becomes inconvenient, the person takes a flight from facts.

As public debate rages about issues like immunization, Obamacare, and same-sex marriage, many people try to use science to bolster their arguments. And since it’s becoming easier to test and establish facts—whether in physics, psychology, or policy—many have wondered why bias and polarization have not been defeated. When people are confronted with facts, such as the well-established safety of immunization, why do these facts seem to have so little effect?


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24 comments on “Why People “Fly from Facts”

  • Perhaps what is happening is we invest in beliefs. When we are forced to publicly change them, we are humiliated. We would sooner be wrong that admit we were wrong.

  • I think thats true. But even more than that at a deeper level we struggle to recognise and counteract our biases. So intelligent people can believe absurd claims because they are biased towards them and can construct sophisticated arguments (but false) to defend these claims.
    To understand this is to understand why people like Andrew Wakefield still thinks vaccines cause autism and why Michael Behe still thinks life was intelligently designed.



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  • We would sooner be wrong that admit we were wrong

    I agree

    It seems to me to be a vestigial adaption. in early social groups, being wrong could mean exclusion and the end of your genetic line. being right could mean elevation to a position of power and influence.

    The issue is that the higher you climb the further you fall. To claim a direct communion with the forces of nature which only needs to be backed up by a few historic lucky guesses is a safety line. your decisions (e.g. direction to nearest water, safest place ot camp etc), instead of being simply right or wrong then become either right or not yet right. Those who’s faith in the wise elder faltered might well die while choosing to take a different path, those with faith might also but at least everyone dies in that scenareo so no news will get to the apostate.

    It’s just a guess but I think clinging to the first position you publicly make is a sound survival technique from a genetic point of view. Now it seems counter-intuitive to think that facts are so bad at changing opinions but before written communication, facts would be so thin on the ground as to be useless.

    Now you have the internet. We no longer need conviction of faith. but then if you don’t want to give up your blind faith because of your natural urge to think like a hunter-gatherer, that’s fine too. there are websites that will support you, ironically enough



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  • Agree with all above,

    It seems to me to be a vestigial adaption. in early social groups, being wrong could mean exclusion and the end of your genetic line. being right could mean elevation to a position of power and influence.

    Yes, I imagine that success with the group is more powerful than being right. Being right is second place as it were.



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  • I agree, @Roedy.

    In addition to the obvious emotional effects, humiliation (often self-inflicted) can cause real, physical pain (speaking from personal experience), so most of us will avoid it if possible.



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  • @OP- When the facts opposed their views, our participants—on both
    sides of the issue—were more likely to state that same-sex marriage
    isn’t actually about facts, it’s more a question of moral opinion.
    But, when the facts were on their side, they more often stated that
    their opinions were fact-based and much less about morals. In other
    words, we observed something beyond the denial of particular facts: We
    observed a denial of the relevance of facts.

    As Mr. Spock would say, emotionless: “Fascinating.”



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  • @Olgun-
    The habit is far harder to give up than the facts

    Are you suggesting that closing one’s mind to contradictory information may be addictive, in a way similar to nicotine? There might actually be something to that hypothesis.



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  • I made the mistake of putting two links on one post which then has to go past the mods so for now, here is the thread the discussion is on. (Until mods pass other post)



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  • I’m wary of the linguistic construction, the fact of the matter, because of the ease that it can be transferred from appropriate to inappropriate fields of human practice and belief.

    “There was a scientific study that showed vaccines cause autism.”
    “Actually, the researcher in that study lost his medical license, and overwhelming research since then has shown no link between vaccines and autism.”

    The authors go on, perhaps, unaware of the slight of hand, to imply that “scientific” studies show that same-sex couples raise children as effectively as opposite-sex couples and that other “scientific” studies show that President Obama’s job creation programs were much more successful than popular opinion surmised. Whether I’m personally inclined to believe the cited studies to be “true” or “false,” the scientific method has not been applied with anything like the rigor, precision. and focus of the vaccine-autism study.

    The authors elide from “hard science” to “social science” where The Fact of the Matter cannot be reasonably ascertained; from “facts” to political advocacy. Campbell and Friesen are trying to sell something and it smells fishy.



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  • Facts may inform our opinions but they don’t form them. If they did then there would be no need for us to play a part in the process. Some august body could simply assemble the appropriate facts, reason out the clear conclusion and inform us of what our opinion should be.

    Facts are only part of what we use to develop our opinions; they sit alongside our experience, our understanding, our knowledge and our individuality. After all, “the well-established safety of immunization” may be a fact but “your child will benefit from this immunization” is not.



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  • Facts may inform our opinions but they don’t form them.

    So if you held an opinion that was contrary to the facts, how would your intellect be rated by informed people around you. A bit like believing in god really.

    Facts are only part of what we use to develop our opinions; they sit alongside our experience, our understanding, our knowledge and our individuality.

    Our experience. Yep. If I hit my head against a wall it will hurt. That’s fact. Experience is just another name for a fact. Understanding. This is up to the individual. They can inform themselves of the facts, so that they understand that smoking is crazy. Or they can smoke. Again, it reflects on the perceived intellect of the person. Knowledge. Yep. More facts. Individuality. This is a tough one. If a persons psychological make up was such that they believe things in the absence of evidence, or worse still, contrary to the evidence I’d say their individuality is likely to lead them astray sometimes with dire consequences, and maybe they should inform themselves of the facts, so they can gain an understanding, experience the results of their cogitations and log it away as experience for future reference.

    In summary, if your opinion is not supported by rational evidence, it is of a lesser stature than someone’s who does. If you hold an opinion in the absence of evidence, or worse, contrary to evidence, you hold that opinion as an act of faith. By definition, this is what faith is. Belief contrary to evidence. Which all leads back to the god delusion inevitably.



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  • If the facts are non-compatible with the religious texts people base their world view on, they will sometimes go to extraordinary lenghts to question the facts, sometimes even resorting to dismissal of science as a whole as a means of knowledge. Case in point: christiansagainstdinosaurs.com.

    Sometimes you can convince yourself of a human conspiracy that is trying to discredit your God and your holy texts, and point to motives like money, fame, hate etc. that the peole presenting scientific facts must have. Because ultimately God can not be wrong, so the facts must be…somehow.

    I think people are basically afraid to really question their faith in the light of facts because of where it might lead. They don’t want to be alone in the world and acknowledge that the justice we humans create for ourselves in this life is probably the only justice. They think they literally can’t live, if there isn’t a God watching everything.



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  • @OP – We presented 174 American participants who supported or opposed same-sex marriage with (supposed) scientific facts that supported or disputed their position. When the facts opposed their views, our participants—on both sides of the issue—were more likely to state that same-sex marriage isn’t actually about facts, it’s more a question of moral opinion.

    Researchers should be very careful with this sort of experiment, where results are based on the participants being insufficiently informed about the objective evidence, and so reverting to biased unevidenced preconceptions.

    Experiments about same sex marriage and children are as likely to reflect the pressures from the surrounding culture, as the inherent nature of the relationship.

    One would hope that objective facts could allow people to reach consensus more easily, but American politics are more polarized than ever. Could this polarization be a consequence of feeling free of facts?

    I think it is more a reflection of areas of the American media being “free of facts”, and rich in pseudo-facts wearing bought badges of false authority!

    Freedom of speech is used very much as a “Liars’ and fraudsters’ charter”!



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  • @OP – These experiments show that when people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter. In scientific terms, their beliefs become less “falsifiable” because they can no longer be tested scientifically for verification or refutation.

    This is the basis of the “god-of gaps” position, which has been retreating for centuries, as scientific knowledge advanced its frontiers.

    A frequent strategy of argument is to dispute, deny, or doubt-monger the evidence, while asserting the negative proof fallacy to be a default position.



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  • If you hold an opinion in the absence of evidence, or worse, contrary to evidence, you hold that opinion as an act of faith. By definition, this is what faith is. Belief contrary to evidence.

    While I do not disagree with this, opinions are frequently based on fear as well – fear of the statistically unlikely, but still possible, catastrophic outcomes that have occurred and are often reported in media with attention-grabbing sensationalism. As we all know, fear is a strong motivater.



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  • Doug Mar 9, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    Are you suggesting that closing one’s mind to contradictory information may be addictive, in a way similar to nicotine? There might actually be something to that hypothesis.

    There seem to be some addicts around – making determined efforts to have others share their addictions!
    https://answersingenesis.org/age-of-the-earth/how-old-is-the-earth/
    Conclusion

    When we start our thinking with God’s Word, we see that the world is about 6,000 years old. When we rely on man’s fallible (and often demonstrably false) dating methods, we can get a confusing range of ages from a few thousand to billions of years, though the vast majority of methods do not give dates even close to billions.

    Cultures around the world give an age of the earth that confirms what the Bible teaches. Radiometric dates, on the other hand, have been shown to be wildly in error.

    This is known as “Hamster Geology” in honour of its deluded inventor, who has gone to the trouble of compiling all the wrong answers he can find or make up!



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  • In my view, the authors stray from propositions subject to investigation by the scientific method to propositions which are not subject to scientific “proof.” The former produces findings about how natural phenomena work derived from experiments which can be repeated. The latter reflect the interests and purposes that parties bring to a conflict. It is not helpful to believe that politically-charged issues can be settled by some fact of the matter essential to an objective resolution that curiously favors one’s own partisan position.

    Imagine a labor dispute where the union is demanding a 10% wage increase. Both management and labor bring a package of “facts” to the table. Workers argue that they haven’t receive a wage increase in 5 years, the company ‘s profits are up 10% etc. Management (which may well settle for a 3% increase) argues that the wage hike will make the company uncompetitive, will force the company to reduce medical benefits or pensions to retirees, etc. Each party advocates the “factual” case of their own position. There are winners and losers but no “Objectivity God” that decides the conflict separate from the dynamic consensus reached by the opposing parties. Moreover, while negotiations are pending, the environment mutates and developments introduce volatility. Next year the economy may grow rapidly or suffer a meltdown.

    A philosopher once asked, “Is it still a fact that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris if it is moved to Berlin?” “Fact” is a term of convenience for a description or explanation of how we believe things work unlikely to change. The trap is to use the term as if it refers to a concrete object like a leaded crystal paperweight.

    To be fair, the authors introduce the issues of gay marriage and rating Obama’s presidency from an ostensibly “neutral” perspective. Knowing that the authors are steeped in liberal partisanship, framing dynamic controversial issues as if the fact[s] of the matter could settle it once and for all is clearly biased in favor of endorsing gay marriage and Obama. The authors subvert their “objectivity” with the subliminal message: VOTE DEMOCRAT! (For the record I do vote Democrat).



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  • I think you have to train yourself to be rational. It’s a bit like the power of positive thinking. Being happy does not come automatically, you have to teach yourself to appreciate things and not be overwhelmed by the problems of life. So too accepting facts and rejecting myths, pseudo-science, unsupported dogma and so on. When people make claims to me, I have an annoying, to them, habit of responding “Where’s the evidence”.



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  • You are mistaking the grey area which exists where nobody can be sure, as in the labour dispute example, with the facts of science, most of which are much less doubtful, and you are also misrepresenting the alternative view. The differences between a labour union and an employer are not comparable to the differences between a tested and approved drug, and a homeopathic remedy, for example.



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  • Experience is just another name for a fact.

    I’m not sure that I agree with that. I recently went to a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was an extraordinary experience; but I would struggle to put together an effective description of the experience solely in terms of the associated facts. They wouldn’t suffice.

    It makes me think of the sonnet How Do I love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in which she enumerates the ways she loves the person to whom the poem is addressed. It is a series of simple statements. But the beauty of the poem lies far beyond the mere words.



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  • Hear that sound. That’s the twang of a long bow string being drawn. The arts and appreciation of them are a matter of taste. My reference to experience being factual had nothing to do with taste.

    In your experience, what happens when you drive on the wrong side of the road? What happens if you jump off a tall building? What happens if you walk next door and rape your neighbours wife? This is factual experience, that you store and use for future reference.

    Referencing the “Arts” to support any argument is like trying to herd cats. Whether a piece of art is good or not is purely a subjective judgement for the viewer and has no basis in fact. If you like it, it’s good art. If you don’t, it isn’t. That’s the beginning and the end of art appreciation. (It also applies to wine).



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  • You are mistaking the grey area which exists where nobody can be sure, as in the labour dispute example, with the facts of science, most of which are much less doubtful.

    I didn’t “mistake” the grey area. I illustrated a grey area in order to encourage critical thinking when social scientists claim scientific validity for “findings” from studies contrived to advocate ideology. The term “fact” or phrase “fact of the matter” can too easily morph into pseudo-authority for mandating thought, speech and behavior. Inputs of empirical data from multiple diverse sources are welcome for delving into complex human concerns and forming pragmatic consensus. But the demagogue who stands over the crowd wielding the sword of truth is a menace to free thinking.



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