Eugenie Scott on Changing Minds: Treat People Like a People, Not Symbols

You might have heard that it’s pretty hard to change people’s minds. I bet no one knows this better than skeptics who have the unenviable task of trying to dissuade society from buying into false and harmful beliefs that are nonetheless appealing and entrenched.

Photo by Brian Engler

A true favorite of the skeptic universe, Eugenie Scott, gathered up some of the latest and most compelling research on the question of why people resist knowledge, and guided us to some answers that are both frustrating and encouraging.

Here’s what the problem isn’t: People who reject the reality of climate change, evolution, vaccines, or what have you, don’t do it because they’re stupid, uninformed, or even opposed to science. It has much more to do with ideology and the shared values of a tribe.

Now, interestingly, Scott cautioned us not to demean ideologies generally. (“Ideology is not a four-letter word.”) An ideology can certainly blind one to certain truths if it’s not a particularly good one, but a strong ideology can serve as a valuable framework for doing genuine good.

But we also have to grapple with the fact that for us tribal humans, ideology will more often than not trump evidence. The stakes for being wrong can be much too high for members of a given ideological group. Scott summarized this as thinking, “Something is going to be lost if the other guy is right.”

But there are solutions: Finding the right messengers, those who are members of a tribe and can connect on their level and with their values. A great example is Katharine Hayhoe, the evangelical Christian climate scientist.

It gets even simpler, actually, at least according to Scott. “Here’s my low-tech solution,” she said. “People need to talk to each other.”

What’s this now?

“Even if you’re from a different tribe, you can build up a level of trust with those who disagree with you,” she advised, giving people the chance to “get to know each other as individuals rather than as symbols.”

If we can do that, “The science then has a chance to be listened to.”


Header image by Mark Boslough.

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