Truth – easy come, easy go

| October 5, 2017

As a species we pride ourselves as being the wisest on Earth. For many years now that assumption has been challenged: we tend to develop a picture of the world around us as we grow into adulthood, and that picture becomes more rigid and inflexible the older we get.

We are inclined to read the news which accords with our preconceived concepts of whichever situation is being discussed; we ignore facts which conflict with these concepts. This has been accepted by social media which now only gives us the ‘facts’ we have previously indicated we are prepared to accept.

Recent elections overseas have shown that facts are not high on the agendas of the majority – lies and half truths have more power over voters who just feel the need for change. Even in Australia, where education levels are reasonably high, our government has found that presenting people with facts about climate change, inoculation, health, obesity, using mobile phones while driving, etc has little effect on people’s habits.

Richard Dawkins came up with the idea of ‘memes’ which form as we mature and control our lives to a large extent. These are essentially the habits we develop as we grow, based on what we notice in others.

How do we get these fixed ideas? It appears that the human brain, while being very versatile in many ways, has the habit of accepting the first credible hypothesis we absorb/generate and judges all other similar ones by it. In a world of rational empiricists, facts and a careful weighing of the evidence would determine which claims we accept and which we reject. But we are biased. In the real world of flesh-and-blood humans, reasoning often starts with established conclusions and works back to find “facts” that support what we already believe. And if we’re presented with facts that contradict our beliefs, we find clever ways to dismiss them.

It appears that the better educated we are, the better we are at making sense of scientific truths, the better we are at confirming our own bias and in writing off inconvenient truths.

Studies by Dan Kahan at Yale University have shown that, in contrast to liberals, among conservatives it is the most scientifically literate who are least likely to accept climate change. “Polarisation over climate change isn’t due to a lack of capacity to understand the issues,” says Kahan. “Those who are most proficient at making sense of scientific information are the most polarised.”

For Kahan, this apparent paradox comes down to motivated reasoning: the better you are at handling scientific information, the better you’ll be at confirming your own bias and writing off inconvenient truths.

Drawing on responses from more than 11,000 Facebook users, researchers at Online Privacy Foundation  found that while both Remainers and Brexiters could accurately interpret statistical information when it came to assessing whether a new skin cream formulation caused a rash, their numeracy skills abandoned them when it came to stats that undermined rationales for their views on weather increased immigration caused an increase or decrease in the crime rate (New Scientist, Seeing Reason).

But even if the social media “filter bubble” is burst and everyone is exposed to inconvenient truths, it may not be enough. A study of 1,700 parents done by Nyhan and Jason Reifler at the University of Exeter, UK, reveals that fact-based messages of the sort often used in public health campaigns don’t work – and sometimes have the opposite effect to what was intended. So while messages debunking the claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism, for example, did reduce belief in this misconception, they actually decreased intent to vaccinate among parents with unfavourable attitudes towards vaccines. Similarly, images of children suffering from the diseases that MMR prevents led sceptical parents to be less likely to vaccinate than they were previously. Nyhan and Reifler call this the “backfire effect”.

We tend to believe that we are logical and scientific in our approach to the world around us, but this is not the case. The scientists we rely on for our knowledge are also biased; however, they are trained to overcome most of these biases and hence present us with the truth as they see it. Our interpretation of this truth seems to be the main problem.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    October 7, 2017 at 9:03 am

    The scientific method is about uncertainty, or at least probability, not winners or losers. And science is certainly not concerned with believers and deniers, that is in the realm of religious faith. The ‘P-value’ approach to determining whether or not an hypothesis is likely to be true or is rejected in favour of the alternative hypothesis. This method allows for independent verification and it also shows that scepticism is a fundamental principle of science.
    It is frustrating that due to self-interest, political ideology or plain stupidity, some people refuse to acknowledge even the possibility of anthropogenic climate change. The null hypothesis “denies” a phenomenon or observation but it is important to very carefully define the hypothesis. It is the task of science to disprove the null hypothesis, not with absolute certainty, but to an accepted statistical degree.
    Beyond that, I am more concerned with defining climate change in terms of its effects and what, if anything, can be done to mitigate them. For instance, many farmers in the grain producing region of South Australia do not think that climate change is caused by humans, but nevertheless they are already adapting to the apparent southward creep of ‘Goyder’s Line’. This line runs roughly east-west across the state joining places with an average annual rainfall of 250 mm. Rainfall is too low and unreliable for agriculture north of the line. Subtle shifts in the geographic and seasonal distribution of rainfall could seriously impact food security even if aggregate annual rainfall remains unchanged.
    Say both the sceptic and the denier share the null hypothesis that crop failure is not due to lack of rainfall which is then disproved. A sceptic may still question the methods, data and conclusions, whereas the denier holds to the original hypothesis. Scepticism and denial therefore appear to be different degrees of the same thing. Lousy grammar but reasonable science.

  2. Alan Douglas

    October 10, 2017 at 10:45 am

    A great response from Max, as usual. Yes, the farmers’ response to climate change does appear odd, but farmers in the US had a similar response. Maybe that is because those who work on the land are, or become very conservative – relying in their own expertise most of the time.Tony Abbott seems to have a similar problem judging by his talk in the UK today. Climate change and what to do about it is a very frustrating subject, especially when so many powerful forces can’t seem to be able to agree on what to do. Maybe now is the time to say “Enough” and give the planet over to the ants!

    • admin


      October 10, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      Dare I ask either of you for further comment on the ‘clean energy target’?

      • Alan Douglas

        October 11, 2017 at 8:08 am

        I wish I had the background to comment on the clean energy target. Like most people I would like to see a lot more clean energy being produced and maybe with the more efficient and cheaper storage units coming on the market we may get there. However there does not appear to be much real interest amongst our leaders. Thank Heavens Tony has finally gone too far and will hopefully be ignored by thinking people. Unfortunately I do not have the science to comment much further.

  3. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    October 10, 2017 at 8:05 pm

    In principle, it’s often a good thing to have a focus or an aim, and preferably with inbuilt ‘stretch’ to encourage innovation and genuine effort. My Dad reckoned that our reach should exceed our grasp. But then he thought you couldn’t fix a leaking roof while it was raining and there was no need when it was not. But a government target infers either prescriptive legislation or incentives to be provided via taxation or by picking winners. Governments are notoriously bad at picking winners and often politically incapable of the other options mentioned. Economic distortions, health and environmental ‘externalities’ are almost inevitable consequences of government intervention and social engineering. I suppose the demise of automotive manufacturing in Australia is a sad illustration of what can happen when governments back the wrong horse. It’s pretty clear that the ordinary punters had other ideas.
    A ‘clean energy target’ adopted by the commonwealth government would not necessarily provide investors with confidence to proceed with major projects. State government policies, driven by popular opinion could render a clean energy target ineffective. For example, the Victorian Geothermal Assessment Report 2016 states: “Skilled power industry personnel, drilling contractors, transmission lines and large energy consumers are all co-located in the Latrobe Valley, which is also one of the most prospective locations for geothermal energy in the state. No single body coordinates the activities of the disparate range of organisations with an interest in geothermal energy in Victoria. Without such a body it is likely that Victoria will continue to disregard its geothermal energy endowment.” The Victorian government’s ban on ‘unconventional’ exploration would deter potential investors. The ban is an irrational ‘one size fits all’ approach to a very complex issue. Drilling either for water or gas may entail a risk of connecting aquifers containing high concentrations of salts and toxic minerals with other aquifers containing water suitable for drinking. The risk can only be determined by skilled assessment in each case. Opposition is usually based on ideology that seems to accept climate science but rejects hydrogeology without sufficient understanding of either of these highly complex disciplines.
    There’ll be many people better qualified to comment and I’m looking forward to reading their contributions.

  4. Alan Douglas

    October 12, 2017 at 9:20 am

    Yes, there are various alternatives being discussed at present. I think we covered the geothermal idea in a previous session. Why no-one has done anything about it in the Latrobe Valley beats me. The New Scientist has also mentioned the Chinese idea of creating what appears to be carbon nanotubes by burning leaves, washing the ash and heating the result to etch the particles, thus providing a greater surface area for storing power. There is also the Spanish idea (Essential Knowledge: Going Clean) of providing hydrogen from methane. This is achieved by breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond in a fairly simple way (without the expenditure of too much energy and using molten tin in a device the size of a hockey stick. After one month, the carbon had formed and had floated away to the sides where it could be scraped off as slag. Hydrogen is a great, clean fuel but there is difficulty in storeage. If this device works and is portable, we may be heading in a new direction.
    Does anyone have any further thoughts on this one?

  5. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    October 12, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    Quite right Alan. I have been on about the geothermal potential in the Latrobe Valley quite a bit. I’d be relieved if someone would say why geothermal isn’t feasible. If it’s a political problem it wouldn’t be the first time a government has had to extricate from a hole it drilled for itself.