Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Best If Promulgated By...

by Drek

During a recent fit of productivity I happened to read an article by Stan Kaplowitz and his colleagues* dealing with opinion change. Specifically, the article reports on a series of experiments that examine the impact of two factors on subject opinions: disconfirmation and discrepancy. For those who don't have a comprehensive library of social psychological terminology filed away in their brains** disconfirmation simply means "the opinion advanced by a second individual differs from what you would expect." So, for example, if a Republican politician advanced strong support of abortion rights, equal opportunity, and environmental protection, we would experience an amount of disconfirmation. Discrepancy, on the other hand, represents the size of the difference between one's own opinion and another person's. So, if I think taxes should be raised by 2% and my Republican father believes that they should be lowered by 2%, we are experiencing discrepancy.

Part of what is interesting here is that these two factors can vary independently of one another. So, if my Republican father also said that taxes should be raised by 2% I would experience disconfirmation, since this differs from his usual stance, but not discrepancy, since our positions are identical. Likewise, if the aforementioned Republican politician expressed a distaste for abortion rights, equal opportunity, or environmental protection I might experience discrepancy, since I don't agree with his stances, but not disconfirmation, since those are the positions I anticipate he holds. The question then becomes, how do disconfirmation and discrepancy mutually influence opinion change?

Well, as it happens, they both have interesting effects. Discrepancy, it appears, tends to produce opinion change. So, if I am exposed to arguments greatly at variance with my own, the size of the variance appears to have an impact on the size of my opinion change.*** Disconfirmation, likewise, has a substantial impact- a person who takes an opinion contrary to what you would expect has a greater influence on opinion change than one whose opinions fall into line with expectations. Particularly interesting, however, is why this effect appears to occur. To quote Kaplowitz et al:

Our results show that when the source takes an unexpected position, this position need not suggest that the source is unbiased. Rather, it may suggest that the case at hand merits a comparative evaluation which is extreme enough to overcome any bias on the part of the source.

So, in other words, if my Republican father agrees that a 2% tax hike is necessary, I'm more likely to assume that this is because the severity of the economic situation warrants the change than I am to conclude that he is more impartial than I previously thought. Why is this interesting? Well, for a simple reason: it suggests that the more unexpected a position an authority takes, the more likely individuals are to assume that the authority has a good reason for taking it. It is, effectively, a social psychological explanation for what is commonly known as the big lie doctrine. Domestically we may have seen this play out following September 11th, when the populace reacted to a government that was unexpectedly trampling due process by assuming that there must be a good reason for it. The genesis of Iraq War II may well have been similarly influenced. What we see is an effective reversal of Carl Sagan's argument that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Apparently, to many people, extraordinary and unexpected claims may imply that extraordinary evidence exists, whether they have personally seen it or not.

And all of this, oddly enough, makes me think of Michael Behe and his cohort Wild Bill. They are, respectively, a biochemist and a mathematician**** and both are advocates of Intelligent Design creationism. Consider, for a moment, how their presence at the forefront of the "movement" impacts those who are exposed to them. Most people probably expect those of high education, particularly Ph.D.s and especially Ph.D.s from technical fields like biochemistry and mathematics to be proponents of evolution. It is, after all, the perspective that seems to dominate in the academy***** and academics are often expected to be atheists or atheist sympathizers. If you don't believe me about that, read Conservapedia for a week or two. Yet, suddenly, here come Mickey and Wild Bill- two academics who claim that evolution is a crock and this new "intelligent design," a transparent disguise wrapped around creationism, is the truth. Whether or not there is any discrepancy in this argument, certainly a great amount of disconfirmation results. It is obvious why, therefore, Behe and Dembski have been so popular and effective as messengers for creationism.

Yet, what happens as time goes by? The longer Behe and Dembski keep up their tirades against evolution, the more we learn about their theological commitments, the weaker that disconfirmation becomes. Eventually, we expect what they have to say and are not surprised by it in the least. It appears, strangely enough, that ideologues like Dembski and Behe have a limited period of usefulness, almost as though there is a freshness date stamped upon their rumps. "Lousy arguments best if advanced by..." or something to that effect. In order to maintain its effectiveness, Intelligent Design creationism must therefore continually introduce new scientists and academics who are equally unlikely to support intelligent design and yet do so- something that ID has been manifestly unable to do. And as this failure drags on, we might well expect what little momentum ID has acquired to peter out.

It's all quite speculative but perhaps in this basic research on opinion change what we actually have is a partial explanation for the trajectory of ID, as well as a promise for the future. The next iteration of ID will be back just as soon as they dress it up in new clothes and find another pair of unexpected hacks to advance in into the public eye.

Or, then again, maybe I'm deliberately wasting your time. Your call.

* Kaplowitz, Stan, Edward L. Fink, James Mulcrone, David Atkin, & Saleh Dabil. (1991). "Disentangling the Effects of Discrepant and Disconfirming Information." Social Psychology Quarterly. 54(3). 191-207.

** e.g. Me.

*** Other scholars are invited to correct me if more recent literature suggests otherwise.

**** As well as a sort of amateur theologian, which may explain why his understanding of statistics is so often criticized. Not that theologians can't do math, but rather that Dembski has a lot of motivation to make the math say what he wants it to say.

***** Not to mention in evidence-based institutions everywhere.

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Excellent post, Drek. The social psychologist in me agrees with your assessment. It would also be interesting to study the ways to best combat such people getting such a hold on the public imagination.
Ultimately, it's as if people are making situational attributions for new, wacky information put forth by these guys, rather than attributing the new information to the source itself. Sort of like the fundamental attribution error, but aimed at other, rather than oneself.
If this is a correct linkage, it has interesting implications, since individuals are more likely to make dispositional attributions about other people (when situational ones are more correct - think stereotypes of homeless people here), and situational ones about themselves.
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