Physician, Atul Gawande, in his commencement address at California Institute of Technology in 2016 noted that a belief in science, “has allowed us to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe. Yet scientific knowledge is not necessarily trusted. Partly, that’s because it is incomplete. But even where the knowledge provided by science is overwhelming, people often resist it – sometimes outright deny it.”
You see this derision of science and scientific principles in the anti-vaccine movement.
Part of the reason is that people “don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. But they do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.”
“Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation,” Gawande went on to say. “You can explain that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. But once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains—especially when they do not trust scientific authorities.”
Rebutting false beliefs doesn’t work.
“In fact, it commonly backfires,” say John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky in the Debunking Handbook. “Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers. That’s just the way the brain operates; misinformation sticks, in part because it gets incorporated into a person’s mental model of how the world works.”
“Even more than what you think, how you think matters,” concludes Gawande. “The stakes for understanding this could not be higher.”
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