Saturday, July 10, 2010

Confirming your prejudices

A UK newspaper reports:
Professor Geoffrey Munro took about 100 students and told them they were participating in a study on "judging the quality of scientific information", ...

Then they were asked about the research they had read, and were asked to rate their agreement with the following statement: "The question addressed in the studies summarised … is one that cannot be answered using scientific methods."

As you would expect, the people whose pre-existing views had been challenged were more likely to say that science simply cannot be used to measure whether homosexuality is associated with mental illness.

But then, moving on, the researchers asked a further set of questions, about whether science could be usefully deployed to understand all kinds of stuff, all entirely unrelated to stereotypes about homosexuality: "the existence of clairvoyance", "the effectiveness of spanking as a disciplinary technique for children", "the effect of viewing television violence on violent behaviour", "the accuracy of astrology in predicting personality traits" and "the mental and physical health effects of herbal medications".
If people find out that supposedly-scientific research was faulty in one area, then it stands to reason that they would be more skeptical about other research.

This research is supposed to prove that people are unscientific when they prejudices are challenged. I don't read it that way. A lot of social science is bogus but sounds convincing. You don't realize how bogus it is until it contradicts common sense. Then you look at it more critically. And when you find out that reputable journals are publishing research with obvious holes in it, then you are naturally going to be more skeptical. I think that these study subjects are not necessarily being irrational. Maybe they were just learning a lesson in how social science research works.


Anonymous said...

Why did your quote from the article cut out midway through a point?

Roger said...

I quoted the pertinent part for the point that I was making. I gave the link so that you can read the rest of the article, if you please. I would have provided a link to the actual research article, but it is behind a paywall and not freely available.