12/16/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Just 'Cause It's a Proven Fact Doesn't Mean They'll Believe It

"You're entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts" is a phrase the pundits on the Washington scene often throw at each other. The underlying precept is that knowing the facts will influence an opinion. There is often an appeal to science in the acceptance of a fact; science is often deemed the ultimate authority. In fact, the word "science" means "to know." This was not always so. Before science was established as an authority, people still had a hard time accepting evidence that was counter to what they already knew (believed) to be true, even if the proof was right before their eyes.

Allow me to give you an example:
2013-12-13-galileo.jpgWhen Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in his telescope, he couldn't wait to share it with the world. So, in 1610 he hurriedly rushed The Starry Messenger, the story of his discovery, into print. In those days they didn't have talk shows. So, to promote his book, Galileo took his telescope to dinner parties and invited the guests to see Jupiter's moons for themselves. Many refused to look claiming that the telescope was an instrument of the devil. They accused Galileo of trying to trick them, painting the moons of Jupiter on the end of the telescope. Galileo's response was that if that were the case they would see the moons no matter where they looked when actually they could see them only if they looked where he told them to look. But the main objection was that there was nothing in the Bible about this phenomenon. Galileo's famous response: "The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go."

Galileo is considered the father of modern science, now a huge body of knowledge that has been accumulating incrementally by thousands of people. Each tiny bit of information can be challenged by asking, "How do you know?" And each contributing scientist can answer as Galileo did to the dinner party guests, "This is what I did. If you do what I did, then you'll know what I know." In other words, scientific information is verifiable, replicable human experience. How we know determines what we know. Science has grown exponentially since Galileo. It is built on a huge body of data. And its power shows up in technology. The principles that are used to make a light go on were learned in the same meticulous way we've come to understand how the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen over the past 100 years leading to ominous climate change or that Darwin was right, and living species are interconnected "Islands in a sea of death."

Yet there are many who cherry pick science -- only believing its findings when they agree with them. (Documented proof doesn't fare much better. Despite the publication of President Obama's much questioned birth certificate, there is still a percentage of the population that refuses to believe he was born in the USA. )

What's going on here? Believe it or not, science has taken a look at so-called "motivated reasoning" where people rationalize evidence that is not in keeping with deeply held beliefs. Here are some of the findings:

  • A large number of psychological studies have shown that people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs.
  • People rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views -- and thus the relative risks inherent in each scenario
  • Head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts -- they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.
  • The problem is arguably growing more acute, given the way we now consume information--through the Facebook links of friends, or tweets that lack nuance or context or "narrowcast" and often highly ideological media that have relatively small, like-minded audiences. "Those basic human survival skills of ours," says Michigan's Arthur Lupia , are "not well-adapted to our information age." The echo chamber is way too comfortable and we ignore new and challenging facts at our own peril.

And finally the conclusion: "If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction."

In other words, sometimes a direct approach to the facts is NOT the way to go. So keep an open mind about this.