caught up in the bandwagon fallacy, people refuse to listen to science

Being told more people believed something makes you more likely to believe it too, even if science says the exact opposite.
waiting for the bandwagon

Just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s right. This is an issue raised quite a bit in debates, especially on science blogs where critics often tend to weigh in with appeals to popular opinion over scientific conclusions, especially when it comes to climate change and the theory of evolution. But facts and evidence don’t depend on popular opinion to be true and no amount of denial will change them. The only thing popular opinion about scientific facts indicates is the public’s acceptance of science, and unfortunately, that opinion is often hostile and personal anecdotes are given far more respect than random, double-blind, clinical studies and complex, elaborate experiments with definitive results. Humans are social creatures and jumping on a bandwagon is a lot more important to us than abstract science. We can see this in how alternative medicine spreads across cultures, and even more clearly, in a study which reveals just how little some people care about science.

In August 2009, sociologist Heather Ridolfo and her team showed 160 people a video in which an actor was doing abnormally well at a card-guessing game (since he was often told what the card was off camera), and after splitting the participants into four groups, asked them to fill out questionnaires about their beliefs in ESP and paranormal abilities. Obviously, since for many people seeing is believing, the participants generally had very positive things to say about ESP and gave the possibility of paranormal abilities a score of 4.37 out of 7, which equates to a 62% likelihood. But there’s a twist to these results.

hopping on the bandwagon in defiance to experts

Before seeing the video, the subjects were divided into four groups and given very different information about the public’s and scientists’ perception of the paranormal. The first two groups were told that 25% and 90% the public accepts the idea of ESP while scientists reject it, respectively. The second two groups were given the same public acceptance data, but told that scientists accept the idea of paranormal abilities as well. The groups most likely to rate the probability of paranormal abilities after being primed with fictional statistics and watching the video? Those who were told that a quarter of the public believes in ESP while science rejects it (with a rating of 4.58), and those informed that some 90% of people, including scientists, believe in the phenomena (with a 4.80 rating).

So what do these results mean? To me, it seems pretty loud and clear that the findings indicate an alarmingly low regard for scientific opinion which is only taken seriously when scientists seem to support a popular idea, reinforced by some sort of media endorsement. In other words, this is the bandwagon fallacy in action. Need more proof? The lowest ratings of ESP’s likelihood came from the group told that while scientists accept the notion, just 25% of the public does. They gave the phenomenon a 3.52, or a 50/50 chance in their responses. Sure, a bunch of eggheads might believe it but people aren’t buying it, the rating implies.

how pseudoscience exploits the bandwagon fallacy

Not only that, but this data set echoes the arguments of virtually every pseudoscientific or anti-scientific movement which alternates between vilifying scientists as a bunch of know-nothings unable to convince people of their conclusions, and proudly declaring that science is on their side even when calling such statements a lie would be far too kind in conveying just how unfounded such claims are. Now, it’s true that scientists don’t hold a monopoly on truth, nor are they the ultimate authority on whether something is possible or not. However, their words, which have to be based on evidence, need to have at least some weight rather than be forced to comply with ideology and popular opinion to be taken seriously. Or even worse, rejected just because the word “science” is involved.

Oh and by the way, did I mention that the study’s participants were undergraduate students? The people we’re supposed to be educating about the value of logic, evidence and applying sound reasoning rather than simply following the crowd about anything and everything, even irrational and far-fetched claims which have no basis in reality? With wannabe priests proselytizing in our classrooms and creationist science teachers proudly parading ignorance as legitimate education, is it any wonder that science is being discarded even in a post- secondary educational institution and DARPA is panicking about the looming lack of experts in science and engineering in the near future, calling for more programs which try to teach science and math to kids?

[ source: University of Maryland study ]

# science // popular science / scientific method / skepticism

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