Sunday, February 28, 2010

Facts Aren't Always Enough: social research shows people persuaded by values over truth

Interesting article by Bryan nelson in Mother Nature Network on how research in social/cultural science can help anticipate people's reactions, positive or negative, to factual science. In other words, rather than presenting facts and expecting the obvious rationale of those facts (obvious to the person presenting the information, that is) to convince all, one must consider more deeply the cultural attitudes the listener brings to his/her thought process.

'"People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view,' [says] social scientist Don Braman told National Public Radio. Braman is a scholar at George Washington University and part of The Cultural Cognition Project, which has been conducting experiments about how individuals interpret facts differently."

The article says this cultural effect has played into how some people have accepted or rejected information amount climate change, that it is all filtered through their own perspective no matter how incontrovertible the facts are.

"For instance, people labeled in the 'individualistic' group [a study group that embraced technology, authority, and free enterprise] tended to favor nuclear power as a viable solution to the energy crisis. When they were given a report which offered nuclear power as a solution to the climate crisis, they were more likely to consider global warming a serious problem. On the other hand, since 'communitarians' [the study group that was suspicious of technology, authority, and free enterprise] distrusted nuclear power, they were less likely to see global warming as a concern when nuclear power was the only proposed solution. In other words, both groups evaluated the issue of global warming differently depending on previously held beliefs."

While the article's focus was on applying cultural science to the issue of climate change, it can easily be applied to other ecological issues. I, for one, advocate the potential for aquaculture because I have positive attitudes about technology (that it can help address the environmental challenges that aquaculture faces) and because I choose to eat as little wild-caught fish as possible (therefore I am more receptive to the idea of open-water fisheries being eliminated in favor of aquaculture). Someone more skeptical of technology or more dependent on fisheries might have a different reaction to facts regarding the potential of aquaculture.

In some respects, it's not that hard to figure out. As someone who has spent years in the marketing communications field, I know how important it is to know your audience and to be aware that perception, not necessarily facts, can be reality. This is something that many scientists, who follow a more black and white approach where facts are facts, often have difficulty with if they are faced with seeking buy-in by the general public or decision makers. This is one of the areas that I address when providing media communications consulting and related services to research groups and NGOs.

Read entire Mother Nature Network article.

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