Why beliefs overpower science

Human tendencies are anything but objective.  Most people form opinions on topics without a thorough understanding of the scientific literature, which then influence subsequent interpretations.  In the nutritional science realm, ignorance is a large contributor to the current state of confusion, but even if people hear messages from accurate sources, they will most will likely discount it if it contradicts their established beliefs.  This sort of “biased assimilation” is not limited to lay people; scientists of course are susceptible as well.  It would be interesting to know if there were differences in these types of biased learning between difference sciences, as perhaps susceptibility to this bias affects the chosen field of study.

I think it is important to periodically highlight research that examines issues in communication and how people react to information.  It is necessary to understand the complexities of human nature to most effectively spread accurate messages.  With insights into how people counter persuasion, we can be prepared to change our approaches when teaching nutrition to others.  We can have all the research in the world, but it is useless if it isn’t propagated successfully and accurately in our complex social networks.

Recently a paper by Geoffrey Munro (1) described 2 studies that suggest that for the topic of homosexuality, subjects who received evidence that did not agree with their beliefs were more likely to think that it could not be scientifically studied.  Subjects’ beliefs were all strengthened, regardless of whether the evidence confirmed or contradicted their previous beliefs.  In a subsequent unrelated assessment with different topics, one of the findings was that this logic (that scientific analysis cannot be performed) seems to be extended to other areas, including herbal remedies, making it relevant to us.  If the principle is confirmed in larger studies, this sort of reflexive close-mindedness is certainly something to be conscious of.  A great article on this study is available here.

But in the paper, there is a great summary of existing research on why people reject evidence.  I wanted to give a shortened version here to lay a basis for future posts on this topic.

People have a number of identified defense strategies to resist persuasion, the following 7 are from a previous study:

  1. Counterarguing the message
  2. Bolstering one’s original attitude
  3. Social validation of one’s original attitude
  4. Derogating the source of the message
  5. Reacting with negative affect
  6. Avoiding the message
  7. Asserting confidence in one’s belief

Most interesting to me, is that a number of studies show people do indeed resist evidence in the form of scientific information, apart from other types.  The resistance of science seems to utilize differing strategies than from general sources, as of course things like source derogation is not as an effective counterargument as when defending beliefs to more generalized sources.

When exposed to simplified research reports, lay people will identify methodological flaws to invalidate research that conflicts with their beliefs, making them less likely to be persuaded by it.  Since the public is exposed to short summaries of research in most of the popular media, methods of the studies are unavailable for critique, so other resistance strategies are used.

That people discount science when exposed research disconfirms their existing beliefs, or scientific impotence, is an important issue as it may create subsequent disbeliefs in the ability of science to answer questions: this explains why people who reject an established body of research such as evolution seem to be more likely to question others like vaccination and autism.  Scientific impotence leans on the theory of cognitive dissonance, which essentially means that from the feelings of psychological discomfort from evidence not agreeing with peoples’ beliefs, they discount science as a mechanism to restore security, to feel less threatened in areas such as self-image.  It is all about rationalization.

We shouldn’t be confirming our beliefs when we read information that doesn’t confirm them, we should be altering our perspective.  This unfortunate human nature makes me wonder if we can ever conquer health epidemics unless we start doing something about the quality of information in the media and on the web.  Maybe we can learn to be more objective if we periodically remind ourselves about this research.  How would you present it to someone who doesn’t trust in the scientific process, though?

There is a growing body of evidence showing numerous external cues that influence nutritional patterns, but on this side, there is a growing body showing internal ones- belief-resistance processes – also naturally push many people (including scientists and practitioners) further away from accurate information.  The paradoxical health limitations because of our freedoms are apparent when you consider the modern context.

Reference

1. Munro, G. (2010). The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40 (3), 579-600 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00588.x

  • katja

    Colby: It is an interesting post and when it comes to nutrition, everyone eats, so everyone has an opinion. This is why I think if is so difficult to facilitate people to change by teaching about nutrition. I think that the other reason change doesn't happen can be best expressed in an analogy. I am presuming that most people want to know more about nutrition because of weight related issues. My analogy is this. If you want to know how to drive, do you go to a mechanic, or do you go to a driving instructor? The parallel is this. If you want to know how to eat, do you go to a dietitian, an expert in the mechanics surrounding eating, or do you go to a social scientist, behaviour modification expert, or a person who is really good at navigating the food landscape? I believe that nutritionists/dietitians are like the mechanic who somehow believes that if folks just understand enough about sparkplugs and gas mileage that they will drive better. This in fact, may explain why “diet counselling” is largely ineffective, especially in the much more important realm of keeping weight off in the long run. The person hasn't heard or learned about how to drive on the obesogenic highway, they have just learned how many miles per gallon they need, or how often to change the metaphoric oil. This leads me back to the idea of why science doesn't trump beliefs. I think it is because the science doesn't really deal with the important issues, which is how do I eat, how do I not gain weight, how do I navigate social interactions, how do I deal with stress, how do I deal with temptation, etc, all issues that the mechanic doesn't have in their back pocket. Unless dietitians become more than mechanics, we will continue to be ineffective in helping people and all the scientific studies in our backpockets will not help because they don't usually address the issues that folks really grapple with.

  • http://www.recomp.com Colby

    Excellent comment katja, and I fully agree. The (formal) education for dietitians is grossly inadequate on all fronts in my opinion. It seems like there are so many considerations in nutrition and health, that it simply cannot be packed into a program effectively. There should however be at least one course covering behavioral understanding, and a better effort to make changes when counseling. It will really take some dramatic changes in the food environment to make significant differences in public health.

  • http://www.recomp.com Colby

    Excellent comment katja, and I fully agree. The (formal) education for dietitians is grossly inadequate on all fronts in my opinion. It seems like there are so many considerations in nutrition and health, that it simply cannot be packed into a program effectively. There should however be at least one course covering behavioral understanding, and a better effort to make changes when counseling. It will really take some dramatic changes in the food environment to make significant differences in public health.

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  • Joe D

    Nutritional beliefs changed VERY quickly in the 60s/70s, so this about more than belief inertia. Previously, “everybody” knew sugar, starches, breads, etc., caused obesity. Several powerful factors came together: (1) schools preaching about food pyramids that promote cheap, manufactured grains as healthy, (2) TV brainwashing (e.g, “Breakfast of Champions”), and (3) “ethical” eating (e.g, “Diet for a Small Planet”).

    There is no more welcome message than cheap, convenient junk is best for you and your kids and also saves the planet, and every magazine, doctor, TV ad, etc., reinforced the new “truth” from every angle.

    If you are a nutritionist/doctor/scientist, you keep your job by pleasing your masters (insurance companies, big pharma, corporations, and government). If the nutritionist that I consulted entertained the truth, she would have been disqualified by the insurance company in a microsecond.

    In the small, bad scientists like Ancel Keys and T. Colin Campbell, may let strong beliefs trump truth, but getting bad science accepted is about money; i.e., what is good for big pharma, Food Inc., the medical establishment is published and disseminated. The health of the corporotacray is well served by the prevailing disinformation, and individual health is actually an enemy of their growth and profits.

    When my health was damaged by “eating healthy” and I began searching for answers, there is was so much conflicting (but apparently “back by research”) information, that it took months of intensive analysis to ferret out the truth. Credible nutritional information is nearly drowned out by the establishment on the one hand, and complete morons/exploiters on the other.