People Trust Peers, Not Science

This is depressing, but not surprising, I guess. Three psychological studies have come out recently all saying about the same thing. People trust their peers and tend to distrust authority (the government) and scientific information.

I heard about this on The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, episode 254, from May 26th. If you want to listen to Dr. Steven Novella talk about the three studies, start around the 23:30 minute mark. This segment goes to about 35:20, but the whole episode is good, of course.

The attitudes of parents toward the MMR vaccine and autism: The study concluded that parents had a significant bias toward believing information that they heard from other parents. The parents were mostly affected by their peers, and did not seem to be affected at all by what the scientific evidence said, and they seemed to inherently distrust information that came from the government. Not a surprising result.

Raising a general level of scientific literacy would be the best thing we could do to help this mess we're in. My fear is that people are so anti-science and anti-intelligence these days that I don't know how we could go about it, that people aren't interested in learning anything that goes against their narrow world views. Another thing we could do (as recommended by Steven) is to change regulation so that it's rational and evidence-based, not based on public opinion.

Popular Appeal vs Scientific Belief study using ESP: It concluded that people are much more likely to accept ESP based on whether they were told it was popular. And, when they were told that science rejects it versus accepts it, they were more likely to accept ESP if they were told scientists reject it. So they went against the scientific consensus.

The Rogues talked briefly about Social Norming, where you use peer pressure of contemporaries instead of scare tactics from authority figures on people (teens, youth, etc) to try to get kids or people to not do something harmful, like smoking or drugs. They also mentioned Scared Straight which didn't work. People are influenced by social pressure, not rational arguments.

The last study (no working link): If people were presented with scientific evidence which dis-confirmed something they already believed, their response to that generally was to conclude that science itself is untrustworthy. Not just the science that they are being presented (in the study), but the scientific method in general. Therefore confronting people with tightly held beliefs with the scientific evidence, not only does that not work, it turns them off to science in general, even about unrelated topics. It has a huge negative influence.

A related study found that if you tell somebody, "here's a myth and the myth is wrong", three weeks later, a significant percentage of people remember the myth as being correct.

To me, science is so amazing and wonderful and exciting. Sure, the daily experiments can be dry and tedious, but it's all worth it when the results come in. Discovery, observation, exploration, and the creation of new technologies and other neat things that improve our lives or somehow make life better in this universe, well that's all just fantastic. Sure, we have to be careful to keep in mind that human beings are doing the science and can make mistakes. But that's where peer review comes in, and other scientists verifying experiments, results and evidence.

It's not perfect, but it's the best thing we have to understand the universe and get the most out of our precious time in this world. I wish I could convey the excitement I get just walking through my yard, which I've seen for almost 6 years, when I find a new insect or see some plant that wasn't there last year. That's just mere observation. That's not even experimentation or research, and yet still it's exciting (ok, I'm a science geek, but that's compliment, not an insult!)

But I guess if you don't have science and the idea that the universe is a marvelous place in your mind, then how can we interest you? How can we make science exciting and fascinating and part of everyone's lives? How can we show people that they use the scientific method in some form in their daily lives? Is there any way to turn things around and make science and scientific discovery fun and cool and exciting?


  1. I think science is much more exciting than any religion could ever be. Of course the process of science can be rather boring, but then again, the process of religion is far more boring as far as I can tell. Regarding making it exciting for other people: perhaps have them watch Mythbusters? While it's not necessarily proper science (though to some extent that's more because the TV show only shows the more exciting part than because of a lack of it), it's certainly always propagating a proper scientific mindset in an entertaining package. There's also similar shows like Brainiac.

  2. I agree, Frans! Science is thrilling! Yes, you're right the process can be extremely tedious, but it's worth it. And yes, I also agree, religion is mind-numbingly boring!

    Hmm.. Mythbusters.... well, I guess it's something. A start of sorts. But then they watch Ghost Hunters and take the shows on the same level. It's very frustrating.

    Maybe the key is to teach people the scientific method and critical thinking. Oh, I think everyone just fell asleep. Maybe you're right. Mythbusters it is. :P

  3. I've seen Ghost Hunters once or twice and it was amusing bullshit.

    Bullshit! is far less scientific than Mythbusters and often colored by libertarianism, but they make no secret of it. They debunk all kinds of, well, bullshit, at any rate.

  4. I know quite a few people who have fallen for Ghost Hunters hook line and sinker. They see the shiny instruments and guys saying, "Did you hear that?!" and they think that means it's real. Ugh!

    Bullshit! is cool. I like how they debunk myths, but they basically spoon-feed the information to people, so there's still no critical thinking involved on the part of the viewer. Plus, as you said, there doesn't seem to be science there, per se. It's more about statistics, which are easily manipulated, or just basic research.
    That being said, I do like the show.