Backfire: Why You Fear Science

Most of us have been involved in a discussion that turned into a ridiculous argument. In almost every one of these situations, the conversation took a turn for the worse after you presented a well reasoned argument backed by facts, figures and citations that contradicted someone’s closely held beliefs. What’s interesting is that the beliefs don’t even have to make any logical sense – some believe that the Beatles (the rock band from Britain) never existed, former president Barrack Obama can control the weather, the second Gulf War was waged because Saddam Hussein was in possession of an alien device that allowed him to travel to other worlds, the high school comedy Saved by the Bell was a way for the Illuminati to spread secret messages, Hitler is still alive and living in a base in Antarctica, the moon doesn’t exist, and that the Large Hadron Collider is a device designed to summon an Egyptian god. These are all examples of dearly held beliefs that can be found out in the wild.

Why do people believe these seemingly absurd things that can be easily disproven with science? The answer is simple – the “Backfire Effect.” In essence, humans fear the facts, figures and data that prove them wrong. No matter the topic, most of this contradictory data is gathered via scientific means. Recent studies have been conducted on this curious psychological phenomenon which found that when confronted with data that contradicts a deeply held belief, our minds recoil and retreat to a place of unassailable self assuredness. This is often accomplished by mentally reframing the criteria for personal confirmation and proof. This can result in irrational statements, arguments and beliefs, but it protects these deeply held “core beliefs.”

The Earth is a sphere… Isn’t it?

The scientific method, using empirical observations to codify our understanding of the world around us, seems to emphatically support this statement. However, there are still those who disagree with this conclusion. Armed with experiments of their own, members of the Flat Earth Society have proven, to their satisfaction, that the world is flat. It flies in the face of convention, but then again, most “Earth shattering scientific breakthroughs” do.

A YouTuber (a personality that produces video content for, and almost exclusively on, the video platform www.youtube.com) called dmarble set out to prove the Earth was flat by taking a spirit level on a transatlantic flight. A spirit level is a device that shows whether an object is level (parallel to the ground) by the use of fluid filled tubes and a bubble of air contained within the fluid. His very sound scientific reasoning was that if the Earth were round, an airplane would fly off into space. Unless the pilots constantly adjusted for the curvature of the Earth, the plane’s nose would have to be pushed downward every so often to avoid leaving the planet. His video shows that the plane remained level throughout the flight (or a major portion of it) and did not have to adjust. The conclusion drawn from this is that the Earth must be flat – if it weren’t, dmarble and everyone on his flight would have ended up lost in the vacuum of space (Marble).

Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever. Even the basic scientific description is horrifying. In short, once infected with the disease, the subject develops a high fever and begins to bleed internally. In roughly half the cases, external bleeding also occurs. Patients begin to bleed from mucus membranes and the site of needle punctures. The sick vomit and cough up blood. Petechiae, small purple spots caused by bleeding below the surface of the skin, form. Larger blood vessels break under the skin, resulting in purpura (masses of blood accumulating under the skin, akin to blood blisters). Bruises and hematomas, hard swelling caused by blood cells trapped in the skin and muscle tissue, also form. In a majority of cases, this all leads to death (Magill).

With all of these symptoms, it would be wise to avoid any activity that could result in contracting the virus. There are those that don’t heed these warnings. They go into infected areas without concern for their own safety. They will take the blankets and sheets from the beds of those who died of ebola. They believe that ebola is a hoax. These people will stroll through a quarantined area with confidence because of this belief. People in West Africa have been quoted as saying, “I do not believe ebola is real,” and, “If ebola was here, a lot of people would be dead,” and, “No ebola in Liberia” (Monkey Meat And The Ebola Outbreak In Liberia.). These beliefs are prevalent in spite of the overwhelming evidence from local governments, scientists, and the World Health Organization.

The Great Pyramid at Giza is an astounding feat of engineering. Even today, it stands as a marvel of construction. Modern engineers would be hard pressed to recreate their construction. However, there are those who say that the pyramids served purposes other than to simply provide a monument to the dead and a resting place for their bodies. According to some, pyramids can remove the tarnish from old jewelry and coins, preserve/dehydrate food, keep milk fresh without refrigeration, improve the taste of coffee and wine, promote healing, make humans healthier, and help provide relaxation. They claim it is even possible to reproduce these effects with a cardboard pyramid in the comfort of your own home (Websdale).

The Mythbusters, a popular science based reality show on the Discovery Channel, tested the effects of “Pyramid Power.” They created several metal pyramids with the exact ratios provided by devotees of “Pyramid Power” and placed a razor, half of an apple, milk and flowers within the pyramids. The results were unsurprising – the razor didn’t get sharper; the apple rotted at the same rate as the control; the milk spoiled; the flowers wilted. The pyramids did nothing to change these rates (Dallow and Lentle).

Why is it, then, that people have and hold belief in things that cannot be scientifically proven? Why do people hold beliefs that can be discounted and disproven readily by scientific means? Moreover, why do people cling fiercely to their beliefs when there is a mountain of evidence that contradicts them? Are humans simply fundamentally flawed and inclined to believe the unprovable? Are we unwilling to accept that we are wrong? The answer is surprising and far more profound than all this.
A study carried out jointly by the University of Waterloo and Duke University delved into the Backfire Effect and found some interesting results. In subjects where fact should be a major factor – such as the ones I mentioned above – facts can actually lead the person in question to become more convinced of their stance. When the truth runs counter to core or deeply held beliefs – when it becomes inconvenient – your mind will actually run from the truth.

Why? When confronted by facts that threaten deeply held beliefs, the region of the brain associated with physical pain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) becomes active. This region of the brain is also active when experiencing mental, social and psychological pain. When you are presented with information that contradicts a deeply held belief, you can and do experience the same neurological effect as when you are in physical pain (DeWall). This means that, when you are proven wrong, you are likely to experience the same mental cascade as if you were actually injured.

So, when the truth threatens a belief that is part of how you identify yourself, your brain experiences a form of pain. That pain triggers your fight or flight reflex – an instinctual reaction to dangerous situations that results in fear or anger. You will experience the psychological and hormonal effects of fear (Cistler, 79). However, it is considered offensive to literally run from a conversation, even if the conversation does disprove something you believe. Since you can’t run, you are forced to stand your ground. This means that you will fight back. Most people, when forced to fight back, fight back hard (Konnikova).
Fortunately, it’s not every piece of false information that can trigger the Backfire Effect. Strongly held or “core” beliefs seem to be the only ones that are subject to this psychological effect. These beliefs are intrinsic to our view of ourselves. They can be considered to be a quintessential aspect of our self identity. Minor bits of misinformation, or trivium, rarely (if at all) are strong enough to activate your fight or fight reflex.

One study showed this effect in excruciating detail. It showed that the fastest way to give someone absolute steadfast belief in a misconception is to disprove that misconception. The Columbia Journal Review ran a metastudy showing that once a mistake was made, simple retraction of the information often led people to believe that the original statement more than the correction. One of the examples stated that people were more likely to believe an affirmative statement – “I am a Christian” over a negative one – “I am not a Muslim” (Silverman).

Spirited debate is a fundamental part of self education, but it can backfire on you. When you defend your stance with a barrage of facts, you are actually hurting your chances of convincing your verbal sparring partner of your point of view. Unfortunately, once a false belief is in the cultural zeitgeist, it may just be here to stay.

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