Values beat facts. Even if you value facts. It’s a fact!

Why is it ok for politicians to ignore experts, even ridicule experts, to demonstrate appalling ignorance, and to support policies that have failed not once, but many times? Because values beat facts.

CAUTION ADVISED: long thinky piece ahead.

For most of my life I’ve assumed that better education must lead to a better society. Bad assumption.

In particular I’ve assumed that better training in logic and critical thinking would eventually lead to “better” political debate. By better, I mean debate, policy and decision making based on facts and rational argument, rather than three-word slogans, emotion, and beliefs. Wrong again.

Now some of you will already be shaking your heads. The surprising thing is that some of you will be sadly muttering “how naïve”, and others angrily muttering “but they will!”.

More surprising, or interesting, or alarming, or bizarre is this: assuming you read the rest of this article, (which is probably another bad assumption) I’m saying that your decision to agree or disagree with my conclusions will be influenced more by your current values and beliefs than by my logic and facts.

Catch-22! I’m trying to convince you, using facts, that you’re going to accept or reject this argument based on your values and my values, and not on facts – even if you’re a scientist. Good luck, eh? If I win, I may lose, and if I lose I may win.

So what does this research show? In a nutshell, it shows why expert opinion is so often and so easily ignored, and why values matter more than facts. It also shows why any debate that is framed as a battle between opposing sets of values will almost never be won or lost with facts. Sad, but true.

So if you think climate change, or education reform, or vaccination, or criminal law reform are debates about facts, keep reading.

In some revealing experiments, researchers1 took a random sample of thousands of people, and asked them to rate the knowledge and trustworthiness of an expert. They asked the people to “imagine a close friend told you he or she was undecided on the risks associated with climate change […]”. They’ve then explained that their friend was thinking of reading a book, “but wants to get your opinion on whether the author seems like a knowledgable and trustworthy expert”.

Then they showed people the qualifications of a (fictitious) expert, and a précis of the book.

The qualifications were always the same and were impressive, but for half the people the book summary suggested that there was a high risk from climate change, and for the other half the book summary suggested there was a low risk.

Then they looked at how people’s education, job, salary, social background, gender, political affiliation, and many other factors related to their judgment of the author’s knowledge and trustworthiness.

By far the best way to predict whether each person thought the (fictitious) author was knowledgable and trustworthy was whether the author essentially shared the same values as the person!

That is, how you would rate the author’s knowledge, and how you would rate their trustworthiness had practically nothing to do with their impressive qualifications, and very little to do with your own education. It had a lot to do with shared values.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when politicians happily ignore overwhelming scientific evidence, or that there seems to be plenty of support for apparently indefensible positions.

The researchers got the same result if the “book” was about nuclear waste, or laws about carrying concealed guns.

Similar research reported in Science2 and elsewhere3 has shown the startling difference between the acceptance of Hepatitis B vaccination for teenage girls, compared to vaccination for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV vaccination rates are far lower than for Hepatitis B, and the authors argue this is because the discussion about HPV became an argument about teenage sexuality whereas Hepatitis B was about public health, even though both diseases can be sexually transmitted. Many people who support Hepatitis B vaccination are opposed to HPV vaccination, despite the obvious similarity of both schemes.

What this means is that if you’re trying to convince people about public policy, then facts and statistics and research are not only not enough, they are possibly counter-productive depending on how they’re presented.

Even when the audience is made up of people who are well educated and sophisticated in evaluating research, their reaction to the information will be influenced more by its alignment with their own values, than by the facts. When the audience is the general public, then they have no way, personally, to judge whether the research is good or bad.

Instead, they will turn to someone they trust to advise them about the value of the research, and they will choose that person based on their shared values. If the person that they trust dismisses the research, then no amount of graphs and statistics will change their minds. Even if the person they trust looks like Lord Monckton…

As Kahan4puts it:

Our point isn’t that citizens behave duplicitously when they consider and debate such issues. Rather, our argument is that cultural commitments operate as a kind of heuristic in the rational processing of information on public policy matters. Again, citizens aren’t in a position to figure out through personal investigation whether the death penalty deters, gun control undermines public safety, commerce threatens the environment, et cetera. They have to take the word of those whom they trust on issues of what sorts of empirical claims, and what sorts of data supporting such claims, are credible. The people they trust, naturally, are the ones who share their values—and who as a result of this same dynamic and others are predisposed to a particular view. As a result, even citizens who earnestly consider empirical policy issues in an open-minded and wholly instrumental way will align themselves into warring cultural factions.

Nothing in this account implies either that there is no empirical truth of the matter on public policy issues or that citizens can’t ever be expected to see it. But in order to persuade members of the public to accept empirically sound information, it is necessary to do more than merely make such information available to them. (pps. 148-9)

He also observes:

Scientific consensus, when it exists, determines beliefs in society at large only by virtue of social norms and practices that endow scientists with deference-compelling authority on the issues to which they speak. When they address matters that have no particular cultural valence within the group-grid matrix—What are the relative water- repellant qualities of different synthetic fabrics? Has Fermat’s Last Theorem been solved?—the operation of these norms and practices is unremarkable and essentially invisible.

But when scientists speak to policy issues that are culturally disputed, then their truth-certifying credentials are necessarily put on trial. For many citizens, men and women in white lab coats speak with less authority than (mostly) men and women in black frocks. And even those who believe the scientists will still have to choose which scientists to believe. The laws of probability, not to mention the professional incentives toward contrarianism,assure that even in the face of widespread professional consensus there will be outliers.Citizens (again!) lack the capacity to decide for themselves whose work has more merit. They have no choice but to defer to those whom they trust to tell them which scientists to believe. And the people they trust are inevitably the ones whose cultural values they share, and who are inclined to credit or dismiss scientific evidence based on its conformity to their cultural priors. (p. 165)

So, what does this mean?

Many things. It explains why the Prime Minister can shut down the Climate Commission5, abolish the position of Science Minister, and can refer to carbon dioxide as “weightless”6 apparently without significant community backlash or reaction from the Press. Values, not facts.

It explains why two years’ of expert investigation into our education system, headed by a universally respected business leader, can be thrown away7, picked up again8, and then significantly changed9 10. That business leader would be David Gonski, AO, AC, Centenary Medal, Chair of the ANZ Bank and of the Sydney Theatre Company (amongst other things), supported by a team of experts and consulting with over 70 educational groups and considering over 7000 submissions. Values, not facts.

It explains why there is still a “debate” about a link between vaccination and autism, despite there being overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary and clear evidence of fabrication and retractions regarding the link11. A website called the “Anti-Vaccine Body Count”12 lists estimates of the number of preventable diseases, and worse, deaths, of children who have not been vaccinated since 2007, which was when television celebrities started to encourage parents not to vaccinate. The count as at 15 December 2013 was 1,299 deaths. Values, not facts.

It explains why successive generations of politicians call for “tougher measures” against some activity that’s already illegal, and promise to “get tough on crime” and “send a message”. Even though there’s plenty of well researched evidence that increasing penalties, up to and including the death penalty, does not deter criminals at all13. In fact, there is so much research on this topic that there’s research on the use of statistics in the research…14 It explains why Jarrod Bleijie could propose putting convicted members of motorcycle gangs into pink jumpsuits, as though this would somehow improve their rehabilitation,15 suitably commented upon by John Birmingham16. Values, not facts.

It explains why the Prime Minister, who has no expertise, training or credentials in the area, can confidently dismiss Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and say she is “talking through her hat”17 18. This statement made the international press, but didn’t cause an uproar here. Values, not facts.

It explains why the Prime Minister can confidently dismiss both the United Nations and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and tell Australians that it’s ok to smack your children, because he did it19. This is about values, not facts.

Unfortunately the list is endless.

What we all should understand from this research (should you choose to believe it…) is that values beat facts. If you still choose to be like Don Quixote, hop on your well researched donkey and pick up your lance of linear best fits, then you should not be surprised when your opponent turns out to be Lord Monckton with a large horde of (equally) fanatical supporters behind him armed with righteous indignation, and some competing graphs and interpretations.

At this point I should disclose that I don’t entirely agree with the methodology used in Kahan’s studies (oh dear, here we go). However this disagreement doesn’t alter the broad thrust of his arguments, or the compelling results from his studies, and I’m not going to discuss it here in an article that is already three times too long (you still here!?).

A clear demonstration of what happens when people completely abandon the scientific method as an implicit agreement on both sides is the “debate” that has been raging in the U.S.A. about the teaching of evolution. Here is a value-based debate that has completely jumped the rails, and now pits religious belief against science. The two sides have almost no vocabulary with which to talk to each other, as the value systems they’re supporting just don’t overlap. On the face of it, it’s hard to believe (there’s that word) that someone who drives a car, flies in planes, talks on a mobile phone and blogs on the internet can still dismiss the whole of science and its methods because some parts of a religion they believe in contradict accepted theory. It could hardly be more bizarre if the Bible had suggested that gravity doesn’t exist, and yet this is a real debate and real laws have been passed.

The Scopes Monkey Trials20 are not so far in the past. In fact, the value arguments that caused them haven’t really changed at all, and neither have our mechanisms for carrying out political debate.

So what’s the answer?

There is no simple solution to this. You must either convince the convincers on both sides, or frame the debate in such a way that deeply held beliefs (or vested interests) are not seen to be threatened, and cause long-entrenched positions to be taken up. Far more easily said than done, but perhaps it might help you the next time you shake your head in disbelief at “the other side’s” pig-headed refusal to accept the clear and simple logic of the facts that you’ve accepted. They’re doing the same to you, and it’s quite possible that you both are fighting from the back of value-based donkeys, and not fact-based chargers.

More thought required…

A very few will be muttering “still using a diæresis, how pretentious, and now a diphthong, how archaic”, but you’re condemned out of your own mouths.

1 Dan M. Kahan, Hank Jenkins‐Smith, and Donald Braman, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus,” Journal of Risk Research 14, no. 2 (February 2011): 147–174, doi:10.1080/13669877.2010.511246.

2 D. M. Kahan, “A Risky Science Communication Environment for Vaccines,” Science 342, no. 6154 (October 3, 2013): 53–54, doi:10.1126/science.1245724.

3 Dan M. Kahan et al., “Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn’t, and Why? An Experimental Study of the Mechanisms of Cultural Cognition.,” Law and Human Behavior 34, no. 6 (2010): 501–516, doi:10.1007/s10979-009-9201-0.

4 Kahan, Jenkins‐Smith, and Braman, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus.”

5 Tom Arup, “Abbott Shuts down Climate Commission,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 19, 2013, sec. Federal Politics, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/abbott-shuts-down-climate-commission-20130919-2u185.html.

6 “Tony Abbott Interview with John Laws | Liberal Party of Australia,” accessed January 4, 2014, http://www.liberal.org.au/latest-news/2011/07/08/tony-abbott-interview-john-laws.

7 Fisher, “Breaking the Gonski Promise May Provide Painful Lessons for Christopher Pyne,” BRW, November 27, 2013, http://www.brw.com.au/p/leadership/breaking_pyne_gonski_promise_may_gHXDmlFlverr72oEUdED3N.

8 Daniel Hurst, “Tony Abbott Defends Gonski Reversal, Saying Election Pledge Was Misheard | World News | Theguardian.com,” The Guardian, December 1, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/01/abbott-defends-gonski-reversal-misunderstood-promise.

9 Daniel Hurst, “Christopher Pyne’s Gonski Formula: The Loaded Debate on School Funding | World News | Theguardian.com,” The Guardian, December 7, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/07/christopher-pynes-gonski-formula-the-loaded-debate-on-school-funding.

10 Tom Bentley, “Gonski: Christopher Pyne Should Know That Australia Isn’t England | Tom Bentley | Comment Is Free | Theguardian.com,” The Guardian, December 5, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/30/gonski-christopher-pyne-should-know-that-australia-isnt-england.

11 “Retracted Autism Study an ‘Elaborate Fraud,’ British Journal Finds – CNN.com,” CNN, January 6, 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/01/05/autism.vaccines/.

12 “Anti-Vaccine Body Count,” accessed January 4, 2014, http://www.jennymccarthybodycount.com/Anti-Vaccine_Body_Count/Home.html.

13 “The Case Against the Death Penalty | American Civil Liberties Union,” December 11, 2012, https://www.aclu.org/capital-punishment/case-against-death-penalty.

14 J.J. Donohue and J. Wolfers, “Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate,” Stanford Law Review (2006).

15 Nance Haxton, “The World Today – Qld Judge Concerned Punishment for Bikies ‘Too Harsh’ 17/12/2013,” ABC, December 17, 2013, sec. The World Today, http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2013/s3912951.htm.

16 John Birmingham, “Bleijie’s Response to a Bad Decision? More Bad Decisions,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 22, 2013, sec. Comment, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/blogs/blunt-instrument/bleijies-response-to-a-bad-decision-more-bad-decisions-20131021-2vxdc.html.

17Tony Abbott Accuses UN Official of ‘Talking through Her Hat’ on Climate Change – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation),” accessed December 24, 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-10-23/tony-abbott-fires-climate-change-rfs-un/5039932.

18New Australian PM Tony Abbott Dismisses ‘Hogwash’ Claims Bushfires Were Caused by Global Warming | Mail Online,” accessed December 24, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2476502/New-Australian-PM-Tony-Abbott-dismisses-hogwash-claims-bushfires-caused-global-warming.html.

19Emma Griffiths, “Tony Abbott Says ‘Gentle Smack’ Can Be Good for Children – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation),” ABC, December 12, 2013, sec. News, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-12/abbott-says-gentle-smack-can-be-good-for-children/5151798.

20Scopes Trial – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia,” accessed January 5, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial.

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