Lewandowsky on Radio 4 – missing out basic human psychology

Mike Haseler comments upon the appearance of Prof Stephan Lewandowsky on Radio 4 this week.

Lewandowski is a nasty piece of work who set out to fabricate data using bogus questions by which he attempted to prove sceptics are conspiracy theorists. All he managed to prove is that he is incapable of admitting the poor quality of his work. So, imagine my disgust tonight when I heard the BBC were broadcasting some of his material:

“Why do we continue to believe information even when we are told it’s wrong? Claudia Hammond discovers how the brain stores facts and why we don’t erase erroneous explanations.” (all in the mind)

That section of the program wasn’t very interesting (I fell asleep listening) but having had the misfortune to read the scenario before, the gist of it was that sometimes people will use ideas that they have been explicitly told are wrong showing that most people do not trust academics like Lewandowski.

Obviously that’s not what he intended the result to be.

The scenario given was that subjects were told there was a fire in a barn. They were told oil paints were stored in the barn. They were then told they were not stored in the barn (at which point is anyone going to believe the researcher?). Then they are asked why the fire had thick smoke. Lewandowski is trying to prove “false memories” or some such junk, by showing people still use the information that there was oil paints which they have been told is false. The reality is that what he proves is that very often people don’t believe the information the academics force down their throat and they come up with quite plausible explanations (the smoke was caused by the oil paints the researcher told them wasn’t present) which don’t agree with the “truth” ordained to them by academics like Lewandowski. What this clearly shows is that the general public is more inclined to trust their own ideas of what happened rather than rely on academics like Lewandowski when they are so untrustworthy they can’t make up their mind whether there is or is not paint in the barn.

My comment was

Your point about not believing somebody who has fed you false information is an enormously important part of human psychology. In close relationships, such as with one’s partner or a close friend we trust the other implicitly. If that trust is betrayed – such as a wife finding out after many years of marriage that the husband has a mistress – then it is not easily regained. A lot of distrust in climate science is that when the science gets it wrong, or is found giving false certainties (such as Glaciergate and Climategate), the reaction has not been to confess to error, but to sweep the issue under the carpet, or blame others.

Another aspect is that people tend to trust new information from people that they trust and respect, rather than people that they are prejudiced against. However hard we try to be neutral, people tend to more easily accept the words of the politicians that have their world view, than those of the opposite party. A life-long Tory from Haslemere has similar prejudices to a Labour supporter from Middlesbrough. They would far sooner trust a politician from their party than from the other side.

The problem with Lewandowsky is he fails to understand the problems of regaining trust when it has been breached, but instead tries to create prejudice against those who question his dogmatic views.


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  1. Ed Davey’s anti-science, anti-British and anti-Liberal attack on Climate Sceptics | ManicBeancounter

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