The scientific impotence excuse

Christian Jarrett in the Research Digest blog of the British Psychological Society:

ScreenHunter_02 Oct. 29 12.14 When attempting to change people’s behaviour – for example, encouraging them to eat more healthily or recycle more – a common tactic is to present scientific findings that justify the behaviour change. A problem with this approach, according to recent research by Geoffrey Munro at Towson University in America, is that when people are faced with scientific research that clashes with their personal view, they invoke a range of strategies to discount the findings.

Perhaps the most common of these is to challenge the methodological soundness of the research. However, with newspaper reports and other brief summaries of science findings, that’s often not possible because of lack of detail. In this case, Munro's research suggests that people will often judge that the topic at hand is not amenable to scientific enquiry. What’s more, he’s found that, having come to this conclusion about the specific topic at hand, the sceptic will then generalise their belief about scientific impotence to other topics as well (further detail). Munro says that by embracing the general idea that some topics are beyond the reach of science, such people are able to maintain belief in their own intellectual credibility, rather than feeling that they’ve selectively dismissed unpalatable findings.

The Digest caught up with Professor Munro to ask him, first of all, whether he thinks there are any ways to combat the scientific impotence excuse or reduce the likelihood of it being deployed.

More here.