It Takes More Than Smarts to Revise Beliefs



Maybe the axiom by Mark Twain best explains the mental posture of Laguna Beach’s City Council promoting the over-priced, over-built village entrance and ineffective parking structure in June.

Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The focus of controversy in the city design proposal was to park 580 automobiles in a four-story parking structure big as a football field, then hide the entire garage inside a public park so nobody would notice.

Despite several years of recommendations made by civic groups, expert testimony by hired mobility consultants and the overwhelming majority in public workshops opposed the parking structure, the city refused to deviate from it’s original June plan.

Despite the debunking presented by LetLagunaVote, the City Council maintained their posture to support the $65 million unmodified plan.  That begs the question: do facts actually matter enough to change the minds of decision-makers?

Researchers are interested in the science of “communicating science” to decision makers in order to form better policy and manage issues like wood smoke, climate change, fracking, acid rain, evolution, cigarette smoke and seat-belts. Through experiments researchers showed there are several mechanisms present which encourage communication or impede it depending if an ideological pre-disposition is present.

It might be obvious that people not polarized by strong ideology are open to communication of new ideas. An effective consensus message might be “seat-belts reduce auto fatalities by 50 percent” or “97 out of 100 climate scientists agree global warming is due to greenhouse gas emissions” or “cigarette smoke causes cancer.” People with a strong affinity to a particular ideology will be more difficult to motivate by a consensus message.

It is not so obvious that the higher the degree of education in either liberal or conservative ideology, the more difficult it is to persuade with a consensus message (the “Smart Idiot Effect”). For these folks, a persuasive argument must be delivered in a framing strategy, put threatening information in a context that makes it palatable for building consensus.

So for long-term smokers the framing message might be “digital cigarettes will stop the craving to smoke” rather than “smoking will kill you.”

Now here’s the really interesting part. The same research shows when confronted with a correction of views by substantial facts, the intellectuals dig-in their heels. The research reads “ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects,” “Fooled by Certainty”, Small Wars Journal.

Does this explain the disregard-for-facts and denial from city council during the village entrance debacle? The research warns us to communicate persuasively you must pick a strategy that is effective for the type of people targeted, from political ideologues to community passives. They say to try different approaches to see which ones work in your world.

One researcher says those who practice communication of science facts do not invest enough in the communications in the first place. He says further, “It’s a mistake to assume that valid science will communicate itself…”

Les Miklosy, Laguna Beach

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