Fact vs. Fiction

During the EU referendum and US Presidential election, fact-checking services became near-ubiquitous. It was believed that if the electorate had access to factually correct information then they would make a rational and informed decision. However, when a cause triumphs in the face of repeatedly debunked statements, the effectiveness of that technique must be questioned.

So, can fact-checking change public opinion? Psychologist Brendan Nyhan led a study on the effectiveness of providing factual information in public health campaigns. In an effort to increase the uptake of the controversial MMR vaccine, Nyhan and his team sent a sample group of parents one of four information leaflets detailing either:

the lack of evidence that the MMR vaccination causes autism;

textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by the MMR vaccination;

images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine;

or a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles.

Factual interventions debunking the link between MMR and autism reduced the incidence of this misconception but also reduced intention to vaccinate among parents with the least favourable attitudes towards vaccination. More worryingly, interventions featuring images of sick children were subject to a “backfire effect”, causing the incidence of belief in an MMR/autism link to actually increase.

The study concluded that none of the interventions had the desired effect of increasing parental intent to vaccinate their children. A similar relationship was found in relation to the scientific literacy around climate change. Those with stronger scientific backgrounds were not always found to agree with the importance of human-driven climate change.

In fact, this group were found to be the most polarised about the role of humans in this area. This is related to the idea of motivated reasoning, the most scientifically literate climate change deniers being the most effective at finding flaws in the evidence to support their pre-existing opinions.

Post-truth doesn’t seem so surprising now. The arbitrary dissemination of facts isn’t very effective at forming or changing people’s opinions. This was a sentiment expressed by Leave. EU co-founder Arron Banks: “The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success”.

A Curious Solution

So, facts can help reduce misconceptions but on their own cannot change opinion. A reliance on the presentation of facts alone may even contribute to the entrenching of inaccurate opinions. If people are unwilling to seek out opinions that challenge their views for themselves, how do communicators best stimulate and inform debate?

The way in which facts are presented needs to change. This could be as simple as displaying information in a clear and graphical fashion. As we’ve seen, language can be easily manipulated to change the way someone responds to information. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that people form more accurate beliefs on a topic if presented with information in graphical form than if the same information was presented as text.

This was effective on a range of political issues, including the number of troops in Iraq, the state of the economy under Obama or climate change. This had the same effect irrespective of political identity.

“A scientifically curious individual is more likely to be scientifically literate, a trait shown to reinforce motivated reasoning”

Psychologist Dan Kahan believes the answer could lie with a particular personality trait: curiosity, and more specifically, scientific curiosity. He constructed a scientific curiosity scale (SCS) by asking study participants a series of questions about their consumption of scientific and other types of personal interest media (sport, celebrity, politics etc.). The participants then selected one type of personal interest story to read and be quizzed on.

The groups’ SCS scores were validated, as those with high values of SCS were found to engage the most with scientific videos subsequently presented to participants. As you may expect, a scientifically curious individual is more likely to be scientifically literate, a trait shown to reinforce motivated reasoning and lead to the polarisation of views. Kahan theorised, however, that scientifically curious people generate their own form of behaviour, the self-motivated consumption of scientific information for its own sake.

This behaviour correlates with the ability to overcome one’s own motivated reasoning, with the most curious individuals seeking out information that clashed with their own views and deriving pleasure from it. This became clear in the second part of the experiment. Participants were presented with a pair of articles whose headlines presented opposing opinions on climate change.

These articles were presented in two forms: one emphasising that something about the information was new, the other being consistent with preexisting evidence. Articles could, for example, be titled, “Scientists Find Still More Evidence that Global Warming Actually Slowed in Last Decade” and “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Arctic Ice Melting Even Faster Than Expected”. The subjects were asked to pick the headline they found most interesting. Someone acting under the influence of motivated reasoning would typically pick the headline that most agreed with their views but people with a higher SCS score displayed a marked preference for the story most at odds with their beliefs.

Regardless of their political opinion or how intensely they identify with it, the views of scientifically curious individuals tend to converge on what the facts say.

“Strategies that take advantage of innate curiosity can be created which don’t leave the recipient feeling personally challenged, helping imbue facts with a new sense of power”

Communicators could learn from this. Raising the profile of people who have high SCS scores could cultivate curiosity within the wider population. This is a very new area of research but one that doesn’t have to be exclusive to psychologists. Many academic fields must come to rational conclusions and as such must overcome their own cognitive biases.

As we’ve established, when presented with evidence that challenges deeply held views, on issues like climate change, the recipient can interpret this as a threat to their personal identity. Together, strategies that take advantage of innate curiosity can be created which don’t leave the recipient feeling personally challenged, helping imbue facts with a new sense of power.

The manifestation of this post-truth world is alarming, but has prompted a necessary conversation; one in which humans admit that, as a species, we aren’t as good at making decisions as we thought. This has been known to psychologists for decades. Being wise means learning from experience and it’s clear if facts are ever going to matter again, the way in which they are presented and disseminated must change fundamentally.

It must change quickly too. The world is facing a multitude of challenges and now, more than ever, we need a public and an electorate that is properly engaged and informed.

Keir Birchall

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