It has long been a sad and frustrating but generally accepted notion among skeptics that facts don’t matter to people who believe in pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and other dubious ideas or claims. The so-called “backfire effect” appears to mean that people will only fortify their beliefs if challenged with contradictory facts, so arguing with people only reinforces their beliefs. And it is also widely believed that, as the old saw has it, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Finding common ground, building trusting relationships, and showing empathy and respect are generally believed to be more conducive to changing someone’s mind than ridicule or hostility.
A recent study appears to challenge these concepts, suggesting that beliefs about conspiracy theorie can be wekaned by both facts and ridicule directed at those beliefs.
Gábor Orosz, Péter Krekó, Benedek Paskuj, et al. Changing Conspiracy Beliefs through Rationality and Ridiculing. Frontiers in Psychology. 2016, Vol 7.
Orac has done a thorough job of summarizing this study, so I will just hit a few highlights. This study exposed subject to unfamiliar conspiracy theories and then to several different attempts to undermine these theories, divided into factual rebuttal, ridicule, and attempting to generate empathy for the “villains” of the conspiracy theory. They then measured several indices of the subjects’ views. The authors concluded that,
Rational and ridiculing arguments were effective in reducing CT [conspiracy theories], whereas empathizing with the targets of CTs had no effect. Individual differences played no role in CT reduction, but the perceived intelligence and competence of the individual who conveyed the CT belief-reduction information contributed to the success of the CT belief reduction. Rational arguments targeting the link between the object of belief and its characteristics appear to be an effective tool in fighting conspiracy theory beliefs…
They also recognized that this conclusion is contrary to established ideas and existing evidence, and so it must itself be treated with a bit of skepticism.
Our findings on the efficiency of rational argumentation go against the mainstream of the communication literature and “common wisdom,” as well as the current affective wave of social psychology emphasizing that emotions constitute the most important factor behind shaping beliefs and attitudes. Considering the modest effect sizes, we assume that rationality has a bigger impact on shaping (sometimes irrational) beliefs than previously expected, given that in the current communication environment, people are overloaded with emotional messages coming from ads, political and social campaigns. Future studies should also investigate the role of rationality and the “rationality heuristic” in belief change.
Orac points out what may be a key aspect of this study. The subjects were not established believers in the conspiracy theories they were exposed to. They were, to relate the study to the issues of this blog, less like homeopaths and more like conventional vets or pet owners with little knowledge and no firm opinions about homeopathy. I have long argued that while battling with true believers accomplishes nothing in terms of changing their minds, playing out such arguments in public may have an influence on the uncommitted majority, who should be the real audience for factual rebuttal and ridicule of unproven and false medical claims. This study provides at least a tiny bit of hope that such an approach may have value.