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The Unpersuadables

The Unpersuadables

The Unpersuadables

We would like to believe people are rational. We would like to believe that if they have formed a false belief based on inaccurate information and poor reasoning, they will change that belief when they are provided with accurate information and better reasoning. We are frequently disappointed.

An example of what should happen

I recently talked with a college professor who believed chiropractic treatment could lower blood pressure. His belief was based on a media report of a chiropractic study. He thought it was plausible that neck manipulation could somehow relieve obstructions to blood flow to the base of the brain, thereby somehow correcting the cause of high blood pressure. I told him that rationale was anatomically and physiologically implausible. I pointed out that the researchers used NUCCA, a form of manipulation that is rejected by most chiropractors. He did not know what NUCCA was. I provided him with information, including links to the study itself and to chiropractor Sam Homola’s excellent critique of the study. My friend changed his mind and thanked me for educating him.

An example of what all too often happens

I was invited to give the “con” side of a pro/con presentation on dowsing to a local discussion group. I lent my opponent my copy of Vogt and Hyman’s classic book Water Witching USA so he would know ahead of time what I was going to say. He read it. The book explains how the ideomotor effect creates the illusion that the dowsing rod moves of its own accord and explains that dowsers have never been able to pass controlled scientific tests. I said as much in my “con” presentation. His “pro” presentation consisted of two arguments: he had personally seen dowsing work, and lots of people believed in it. He didn’t even try to rebut my facts and arguments; he simply refused to engage with them in any way. It was as if he had not read the book and had not heard anything I said. Afterwards, one of the audience was heard to say she would have liked to hear more about how dowsing worked and less about how it didn’t work!

Will Storr investigates

Sadly, some people are unpersuadable. They might as well be saying “My mind’s made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.” We have seen plenty of glaring examples in the comments section of this blog. Will Storr wrote a book The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science about his struggle to understand the phenomenon. He did a great job of investigative reporting, interviewing people with strange beliefs, spending time with them and also with their critics, and reading pertinent research. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking

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Science And The Game Of 20 Questions

An audience member at a recent NYC Skeptics meeting asked me how I handled conflict surrounding strongly held beliefs that are not supported by conclusive evidence. As a dentist, he argued, he often witnessed professionals touting procedure A over procedure B as the “best way” to do X, when in reality there are no controlled clinical trials comparing A and B. “How am I to know what’s right in these circumstances?” He asked.

And this is more-or-less what I said:

The truth is, you probably can’t know which procedure is better. At least, not at this point in history. The beauty of science is that it’s evolving. We are constantly learning more about our bodies and our environment, so that we are getting an ever-clearer degree of resolution on what we see and experience.

It’s like having a blurry camera lens at a farm.  At first we can only perceive that there are living things moving around on the other side of the lens – but as we begin to focus the camera, we begin to make out that the animals are in the horse or cattle family. With further focus we might be able to differentiate a horse from a cow… and eventually we’ll be able to tell if the horse has a saddle on it, and maybe one day we’ll be able to see what brand of saddle it is. Each scientific conundrum that we approach is often quite blurry at the onset. People get very invested in their theories of the presence or absence of cows, and whether or not the moving objects could in fact be horses. Others say that those looking through the camera contradict one another too much to be trusted – that they must be offering false ideas or willfully misleading people about the picture they’re describing.

In fact, we just have different degrees of clarity on issues at any given point in time. This is not cause for alarm, nor is it a reason to abandon our cameras. No, it just gives us more reason to continue to review, analyze, and revise our understanding of the picture at hand. We should try not to make more out of photo than we can at a given resolution – and understand that contradicting opinions are more likely to be evidence of insufficient information than a fundamental flaw of the scientific method.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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