Scientific Facts Don’t Win Arguments

By Dr. Bruce Hull

Do you want your science to influence global change? Don’t rely on facts.

Your facts are worthless because of something psychologists call the confirmation bias. The default psychological setting for most people is to search for and remember facts that confirm initial beliefs and ignore or forget unsupportive evidence. The web makes it easy for anyone to find the support they crave—alternative facts are just one click away from your scientific facts.

Worse, facts can be counterproductive because people are also wired to practice identity protecting reasoning–IPR. People use their reasoning prowess to protect their identity when they feel under threat. As soon as scientists start to explain climate change with facts, for example, they trigger a denier’s identity protective reasoning. We say carbon dioxide or albedo and their inner voice starts thinking: experts are out-of-touch elitists, God has dominion, government is the problem, free markets are good, and your climate hogwash is threatening not only who I am but my job and my children’s future. That is, we trigger an internal monologue that helps them rehearse their arguments and fuel their concern that their identity is under threat. Our rational, wonkish, scientific explanations are not just ignored, they are completely counterproductive.

George Lakoff has a distinguished track record of public service and scholarship excellence. He has written extensively on the topic of framing, values, and language that support progressive causes. The following tips are excerpted from a blog he wrote after Trump’s nomination. Here are few key take-homes for how scientists can influence the debate:

  • Know the key triggers that activate IPR: guns, gays, god and increasingly climate, expertise, abortion, immigration, media, black lives matter, bathrooms, universities, …
  • Don’t activate one of those triggers. It doesn’t matter if your are supporting or critiquing the topic (be it climate, immigration, expertise, media, or Trump more generally). Once you activate it, you end up reinforcing it. (Admittedly, following this advice greatly limits the opportunity for reasoned public discourse, which is the grave danger of Trump because he is pushing more and more issues into this frame-activating, identity-protecting-reasoning space.)
  • Don’t mention or critique false claims or fake news. Doing so just activates a trigger.
  • Give a positive truthful story based on values you cherish: Equity. Opportunity. Safety. Justice. Freedom. Dignity. Integrity. Children. Family. Love. Respect. Health. Faith. Even environment. Progressives have powerful values (I identify with them!), but we don’t mention them enough.
  • Values come first, facts and policies follow in the service of values. Facts and science matter, but only as they support values.
  • For example, reframe your discussion of climate change. Start with owning that you are concerned about the security of your community, the safety and health of your family and neighbors, and the declining opportunities for your children to live productive, dignified lives. Then tell a story about what you want us to do.
  • Use repetition. The more it is heard or seen, the more it is believed, regardless of what it is.
  • Stop defending “the government.” Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, and protecting freedom. The contribution of public resources to our freedoms cannot be overstated. Government Regulations protect freedom from pollution, abuse, discrimination, poison, and so on. Start saying it.
  • Go positive. Avoid nasty exchanges and attacks. Take the high ground. Be hard on principles and problems; be soft on people. Practice civility, good humor, and empathy. Don’t protest against free speech by others, even if you disagree with them. Don’t threaten to punch them in the face, that is fascism.
  • Give up identity politics. No more women’s issues, black issues, Latino issues, LBGTQ issues, Muslim issues, Autism issues… Their issues are all real, and need public discussion. But they all fall under freedom, justice, safety, equity and other values and principles. Identity politics divides us and triggers them. We are weaker and more easily conquered when divided. Twigs are stronger when in a bundle.

Many scientists worry that abandoning their science and facts weakens their credibility. I think you can be a scientist and a citizen. I think the times demand it.

 

Dr. Bruce Hull is a Senior Fellow at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), a professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), and an affiliate faculty member in the Global Change Center.

 
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