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The science behind shifting public opinion

MANY literate and educated people expect others to behave rationally. That is, they expect the public to form opinions on the basis of fact. Obviously, educated people also expect the same of themselves. When the balance of facts swings to one side, educated people expect public opinion to reflect this change.

  So imagine the dismay of scientists in the United States when, after decades of spreading information about human-made climate change, public opinion on the issue has barely shifted. It seems that Americans’ views on climate change are dictated not by access to scientific information, which is what the scientists hoped, but rather by allegiance to a political position—either liberal Democrat or conservative Republican.

What’s even more dismaying is that education and intelligence simply worsen the gap in opinion rather than close it. That is, the most educated Republicans are the strongest in their denial of human-made climate change, while the most educated Democrats are the loudest at asserting it. The political polarization of a scientific issue is greatest among the most educated.

Scientists are left at a loss on how to take this. What gives?

Fortunately, but also unfortunately, we don’t have that same problem here in the Philippines. It is hardly surprising, since we are in a country that is one of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

However, the Philippines has its own share of public opinion problems. To give a very current example, many Filipinos strongly support an approach to the issue of drugs that is very unscientific. 

Decades of research on drug addiction have shown that it should not be approached as an issue of crime but rather an issue of health. Blaming drug dependents for being hooked on drugs, “because it was their choice anyway,” is inconsistent with the scientific consensus on the neuroscience of addiction. 

Furthermore, the experience of countries that implemented a war on drugs, such as the United States, Colombia, and Thailand, have shown that it is not an effective approach to problem.

It is therefore surprising to many educated people that public opinion in the Philippines is overwhelmingly in support of the current ‘war on drugs.’ What’s even more surprising is that many equally educated people strongly support this war. In fact, just as in the climate change issue in the US, the level of education merely strengthens rather than diminishes support for the drug war, despite decades of evidence showing its lack of merit.

To try to sway public opinion, what many critics of the drug war do is to share information about the ineffectiveness of such an approach. But if the experience of other countries is to be trusted, we know this is not the way.

This brings us back to the question: what gives? If accurate scientific information cannot sway public opinion, then what will? And does the inability of accurate information to change opinion indicate that the masses are stupid?

Oddly enough, to answer these questions, we must turn to science again.

What many people forget is that Homo sapiens is a species with tribal tendencies. We have evolved in the plains of Africa, where strong community ties were as important as having accurate information. The lives of our ancestors depended not only on whether they can remember where the pride of lions are, it equally depended on whether they can count on their tribe members to help them when the lions attack. 

This story explains decades of findings summarized by John Zaller in his book The Natures and Origins Mass Opinion. In the book, Zaller points out that people are more loyal to their in-group (their “tribe”) than to the truth. 

In fact, most people are selective about which facts they take in. If the fact is consistent with their in-group’s position, they will use it form their opinion. When it is contrary, they will rationalize why that fact is irrelevant or invalid.

This is called ‘motivated reasoning’. When forming opinions, most people don’t act like scientists. They don’t start with gathering data, and then proceed to making a conclusion only once there is enough data. Instead, most people act like lawyers. That is, they begin with a position, usually the position of their in-group leaders. They then gather data to build a case for that position. 

While this is a grim prognosis for the species, all is not hopeless. They key to swaying public opinion to reflect the most up-to-date scientific understanding is also in science.

In his book, Zaller points out shifts in public opinion start with changing what the elites are talking about. This ‘elite discourse’ includes coverage by the media, discussions among top academics, opinions of public figures, and portrayals in mass media (such as film and TV). 

The most informed members of in-groups are usually the first ones to reflect this change in elite discourse. The change then spreads to the rest of the group. Once a topic is a prominent part of the in-group conversation, then opinions about it, research shows, are easy to change. Scientists say that the topic has become ‘salient’ in the minds of people. What the elites say about these salient topics then become easily shared to the rest of the in-group members.

If we are to change public opinion to reflect the scientific consensus on drug abuse, we must use the same mechanism to shift public opinion away from its currently violent and unscientific tenor, to a more humane and scientific one. So for those who want to change public opinion, there’s a vast scientific literature out there to help you. Read!

(Pecier Decierdo is the resident physicist and astronomer of The Mind Museum.)

Topics: Sounds of Science , The science behind shifting public opinion
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