Sour grapes, Cults and Paper strips

27 09 2012

ImageThere once was a fox who could see some grapes hanging from a vine. Despite his best efforts there was no way the fox could reach them. As the dejected fox walked away he consoled himself with the thought that the grapes were probably sour anyway. (Hence the saying ‘sour grapes’.)

Why am I telling this fable on a science presenting blog?

Well here is a story reported by a psychologist called Leon Festinger in his 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails:

Members of a cult met a a pre-determined place and time. The cult leader had told them they were going to witness and survive of the end of the earth. The time the earth was meant to end came and went but nothing happened. Instead of telling the cult leader he was a phony and demanding their life savings back most cult members became *more* committed to the leader not less.

I can see you are still confused as to what this has to do with science presenting. Let me tell you one more story.

There once was a science presenter who approached a kid and asked if he wanted to see something cool…

Science Presenter- Take this strip of paper and blow over the top of it. Instead of being blown down as you might expect the paper rises up. Cool, eh?

Kid- Yeah, how does it work?

Science Presenter- Well it’s all to do with something called Bernoulli’s principle. The faster moving air exerts less pressure than the slower moving air so the strip of paper is ‘lifted’ by the pressure difference. It’s works in the same way a wing generates lift…

Kid- OK. What happens if I blow holding the strip bending upwards instead of having it droop downwards?

Science Presenter- Well the slower moving air will exert less pressure than the faster moving air and the piece of paper will be lifted further… [The kid blows and the paper goes DOWN not up]. Oh, that’s strange…

Kid- What happens if I hold the strip so it hangs vertically down and I blow along one side?

Science Presenter- Well the slower moving air will exert less pressure than the faster moving air and the piece of paper will move towards the faster moving air… [The kid blows along the paper and it doesn’t move]. Oh, that’s strange…

Kid- What happens if I blow really hard and for a long time?

Science Presenter- Well the slower moving air will continue to provide lift and the paper will be lifted higher and higher… [The kid blows and the paper only reaches the horizontal and stops even though he is still blowing]. Oh, that’s strange…

Kid- So when I blow over a paper strip and it is lifted into the air, why does it rise up?

Science Presenter- Well it’s all to do with something called Bernoulli’s principle. The faster moving air exerts less pressure than the slower moving air so the strip of paper is ‘lifted’ by the pressure difference. It’s works in the same way a wing generates lift…

*******

Can you see the fox, the cult members and the science presenter are all doing the same thing? Instead of taking on board the new information and changing their position they defend their position in the face of the new information. The grapes must be sour, says the fox. Our total dedication to the cult must have somehow prevented the destruction of the earth, say the cult members. The paper is definitely lifted by Bernoulli’s principle, says the science presenter.

They are all desperately holding onto a firm belief because it is less painful to keep hold of a firmly held belief even in the face of powerful and compelling evidence to the contrary than it is to change that belief.

The ‘brain pain’ we feel when our beliefs are challenged is called ‘cognitive dissonance’ and we are strongly motivated to reduce this dissonance.

The easiest way to reduce cognitive dissonance is to ignore the new information (the science presenter ignores the kid’s challenging examples, what does the kid know anyway?). But we can also find other information that backs up our original belief (the science presenter goes to a familiar textbook to get confirmation that he is indeed ‘right’). We can also change something small to protect the bigger concept (the science presenter tells himself that the kid’s challenging examples were in some way not actually related to what he was trying to demonstrate).

All of these actions are perfectly understandable. But not very helpful. What should we do as scientists and science presenters?

Its not easy but we should take that dissonant information and embrace it. We should thank the kid for giving us something to think about and go and explore the consequences of that new information. What we mustn’t do is hold desperately onto the explanation in the face of the contrary evidence because that isn’t what doing science is all about.

Science is all about falsifiability. If your hypothesis or theory cannot be falsified (or tested) then it isn’t a good theory. And when your hypothesis is challenged by new contradictory information that is a good thing. It is time to go and find a new way to explain what is going on that includes your original information and the new information as well. And that is when you are actually doing science.

It might be painful but in the long run but if you are going to be a good science presenter that is a pain that you will have to not just put up with but seek out and learn to enjoy. Do not be like the fox, or like the cult members, or like our science presenter in our story desperately holding onto an explanation in the face of contradictory evidence.

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