The Problem With Facts

The New Yorker recently published a blog by Maria Konnikova that serious conservationists ought to read. “I Don’t Want to Be Right” shares results of recent neuroscience studies and discussions with the researchers. In one study the investigator tested whether facts, science, emotions or stories would change the minds of parents that believed vaccines cause autism. The results were discouraging. The parents who originally believed vaccines cause autism actually became even more convinced they were right when presented with scientific facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. Images and stories were even less successful in swaying parents to reconsider their stance.

One of my favorite conservationists and mentor, Missouri Department of Conservation Agent, Mic Plunkett, taught me a great phrase, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, I already have my mind made up.” That simple sentence sums up the challenge we often face in conservation. How many times have you or your agency presented facts yet public attitudes remained unchanged or even more opposed?

Neuroscience is showing us that the likelihood of acceptance of a fact is based upon how it aligns with a person’s personal values, attitudes or beliefs. For example, a person with no connection or notions about ranching may quite readily trust your scientific statements about ranching and wildlife. On the contrary, a fourth-generation rancher is very likely to mistrust those same statements if they conflict with her views of being a good rancher.

Interestingly one researcher has found when people feel good about themselves they become more open to changing their misperceptions or behaviors. This theory makes some sense to me. I can recall when reluctance to changing my mind wasn’t so much about change but admitting I was wrong and that I may seem ignorant, insensitive, greedy…in essence a bad person. Letting go of these fears has become easier as I have realized that I’m not alone – that many others, good ,well-intended people, make mistakes in judgment too. Freeing one’s self from the fear of ridicule opens the door to diagnostic thinking and shifting positions as more information becomes available.


Landowner and USFWS Biologist

As I have written before, conservationists must acknowledge facts alone won’t lead to changes in people’s perceptions or behaviors. It seems as though all the money and data in the world won’t necessarily solve an issue if the information and conclusions threaten people’s sense of self. If you’ve been in the profession for long you know this is generally true. In trying to preempt later collisions between science and personal values, we share our knowledge of the natural world with those who have little to no bias – children. But what to do about the adults that refuse to believe us?

If emerging theories in neuroscience are correct how might we use this information to gain public acceptance and behavioral changes more quickly with those that already oppose us? I have a few thoughts I’ll describe briefly.

Be dispassionate. Check your passions at the door. Expressing strong feelings (verbally or non-verbally) can actually come across as a wish to insult your opposition’s intelligence or self-worth just to prove that you are right. Instead, be dispassionate about the issue and the data at hand. Begin by explaining why you or your agency must be involved, that to do otherwise would be irresponsible and dishonorable. Explain that your only “agenda” is to share the results of your agency’s information gathering.

Be humble. Expressing sincere humility sends a signal that you care more about the facts than a position or predetermined outcome. Admitting uncertainty about what to do with the science signals honesty. With a sense of honesty, trust opens the door to connecting and getting to solutions.

Be generous. If you’re really serious, the opposition will have reasons to like you despite the facts and/or your agency’s position. Leave the aspirations of your opposition intact. It’s likely you would have a similar position if you were in their shoes. Find and point out the good they do. Acknowledge the positive and downplay the negative. Honor their intentions and thank them for demonstrating how democracy and natural resource policy works.

When confronted with opposition to scientific facts I believe we would do well to remember that talking more or waving more data around isn’t going to change hearts and minds. Flooding opponents with facts has shown to actually backfire and move them further from acceptance or behavioral change. Instead, listen to them and get to know them. To move people to informed consent with you or your agency help them see the disagreement isn’t personal. Show you respect them. Work to keep their aspirations intact. Finding good in our stakeholders and encouraging their input will signal to others that you care and can be trusted…that, not facts, will help them change their minds.

What do you think? Have you successfully brought about behavioral changes of stakeholders? If so, how?


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
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10 Responses to The Problem With Facts

  1. Susan Todd says:

    Great blog Jimmy! I want to share this with my 101 class, okay? Right on! Great topic for discussion.


  2. Willy says:

    Can’t beat going out and “kicking the dirt”; your three points should be a basis for “Neighbors 101” class at the Refuge Academy and repeated in every mid and upper level training session. I think you get it.

    • James says:

      You’re right Bill. You and others modeled the behavior for folks like me. I’m hopeful that neuroscience and “human dimensions” will become a more prominent feature of FWS employee training. Thank you for your contributions!

  3. This makes a lot of sense and I suppose through years of teaching have become more dispassionate about the range of attitudes. Often the light has to come slowly. I like your point about insecurities too. That can really make a difference.

  4. Lou Brown says:

    Great article, Jimmy, and very well written. I couldn’t agree more that putting another person down (whether overtly or covertly) will NOT end well. It is interesting to me that to be a successful agency representative you have to also become a truly good person: generous, humble AND knowledgeable. You are all that! Thanks for a thought provoking read.

  5. Excellent post.

    For many years, one of my touchstones has been this: “Stories trump facts.” This seems to be true across the spectrum of positions in relation to any conservation issue. Stories (with values and beliefs embedded in them) shape the ways we understand and make sense of facts, statistics, etc.

    On a related note, “science” and “facts” are often invoked by people taking a wide range of positions. Frequently, “science” is invoked all by itself, without any particular data or studies cited. To my ear, in these cases “science” is being employed as a stand-in for “rationality” (which is, in the context of public debate over natural resources issues, presumed to be more valid than emotion or other factors, at least in our cultural context). Ironically, such appeals to science are commonly driven by strong emotions, values, and beliefs.

    Your second-to-last paragraph (“When confronted with opposition to scientific facts I believe we would do well to remember that talking more or waving more data around isn’t going to change hearts and minds…”) is spot on.

    It might be an interesting and informative exercise for agency personnel to assess how their own perceptions of “facts,” and the conclusions that they then draw, are also shaped by particular stories, values, and beliefs. As a carnivore biologist recently said to me, science can provide information and strategies, but it can’t define our goals–it can show us how to extirpate wolves, maximize wolf populations, or do something in between, but it can’t determine which of the three we will pursue.

    • James says:

      Biologists are human therefore they are prone to bias, yes. And so are the bosses and public they serve. Perhaps this is why the act of leadership is so important. Thank you for sharing your observations!

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