How hard is it to get people to change their beliefs? Really hard, even if facts are provided that refute those beliefs. And even if those facts are accepted as true! A recent study in Scientific American points to this conclusion. The study, by Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College, dealt with the now-debunked idea that a vaccine for childhood diseases like measles causes autism. The researchers were able to bring the parents who were vaccine-skeptics to the point that they believed the scientific research which showed no link existed. However, they found surprisingly that after accepting the scientific evidence as fact, the parents indicated that they were even less likely to have their children vaccinated. According to Nyham, “The first message of our study is that the messaging we use to promote childhood vaccines may not be effective, and in some cases may be counterproductive.” The explanation for this behavior is not completely clear, but Nyham speculates, based on previous studies, that the vaccine doubters likely recalled other objections or concerns: “We suggest that people are motivated to defend their more skeptical or less favorable attitudes towards vaccines.” The takeaway: changing people’s minds takes more than presenting facts, and may call for messages with a variety of arguments to counter misinformation and myths.
The recent debate about evolution between Bill Nye (the “science guy”) and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum may send an even more disturbing message. It was widely acknowledged (including by Christian Today) that Bill Nye, basing his arguments on radiometric dating, the fossil record, and common sense, clearly won the debate. Of course, whether the debate convinced evolution doubters to accept scientific evidence is uncertain. What seems, however, to be an outcome of the debate is that it has led to a flood of contributions to a proposed theme park addition to Kentucky’s Creation Museum. In fact, a number of scientists were leery of having such a debate, as it gives an aura of believability to creationism. It’s a sad thought that just talking about such issues can be problematic and can reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs.