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Educating the Public

Published: June 7, 2011

We talked last time about PR as it relates to convincing people to destroy their health through the use of cigarettes. While the art of convincing people what products to buy and use is an intensively researched area in commerce, it is not as well developed when it comes to educating the public. That may be a problem.

New Scientist magazine recently editorialized on this: “Those who find rational arguments persuasive naturally assume that others do too, and the way to win a debate is simply to apply a cold-eyed blend of objectivity, data, and logic.”

But, the editors went on to note: “… the more we learn about irrational beliefs, the clearer it becomes that they are perfectly normal. Human beings are not wired for logic. Irrationality is our default state and overcoming it is hard work.”

There is a biological up side to the irrational. Research at UCLA has shown that “positive illusions” including unrealistic optimism or an imagining one has personal control of circumstances can be helpful in times of stress. Of course, the down side to this irrationality is pretty limitless. Take for example the recent failure of the world to end on May 21, 2011 – as predicted by fundamentalist preacher Harold Camping. This belief was accepted by followers but was the subject of much derision by the press. It is predictable that Camping will NOT lose his flock despite his failed prognostication based on his wacky brand of logic.

Science writer Chris Mooney, who has chronicled the promotion of irrational beliefs by professional manipulators of public opinion, wrote about this in Mother Jones recently. He cited one example from the 1950s done by Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger on a group of Chicago UFO devotees. The leader of a cult called the Seekers predicted (based on communications with space aliens) that the world would end on December 21, 1954. The believers in the “prophesy” were shocked by its failure, but re-grouped.

The Seekers convinced themselves that they had spread so much light in the world that doomsday had been called off. The Seekers in turn took to proselytizing their beliefs – being now more certain than ever that they were correct. Several major American Churches had similar experiences in the 19th century, and have, since then, thrived!

Mooney notes that “expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”

This is grim news when it comes to public debates in medicine and public policy. From unsubstantiated “dangers” from vaccinations to phony connections between Al-Queda and Saddam Hussein it seems that people will pick a side – often based upon an emotional response – then rationalize opinions based not upon evidence and logic, but rather upon what has already been chosen as accepted belief. Ouch. AND they are very picky about whose opinions will be be accepted, yet fairly adamant about whose opinions will be rejected.

I recommend this piece (and most writing) by Chris Mooney. The punchline for those who would seek to get their message across to the public is chose your messenger well.

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