People (scientsts and faculty, too) don’t generally make evidence-based, rational decisions

June 19, 2015 at 8:00 am 4 comments

I found the article below fascinating, but as an instance of a general model.  The article describes how scientists who study gun control have very different opinions about gun control than the general American public — who (presumably) don’t draw on scientific evidence to inform their opinions.  People who draw on evidence have different opinions than those who don’t. Most people do not draw on evidence when informing their opinions.

I don’t see that the story here is “Scientists are smart and the public is dumb.”

I would bet that if you asked these same gun control scientists about something outside of their area of expertise, they similarly ignore evidence. I work with CS professors all the time who draw on evidence to inform their opinions within their area of expertise (e.g., robotics, HCI, networking), but when it comes to education, evidence goes out the window.  Davide Fossati and I did a study (yeah, evidence — we know what that’s worth) describing how CS faculty make decisions (see post here). In my experience, if the evidence is counter to their opinion, evidence is frequently ignored. One of the things we learned in “Georgia Computes!” was just how hard it is to change faculty (see our journal article where we tell this story).  CS teachers are pretty convinced that they teach just fine, despite evidence to the contrary.  I regularly try to convince my colleagues to teach using active learning approaches like peer instruction given the overwhelming evidence of its effectiveness (see this article, for just one), and I regularly get told, “It really doesn’t work for me.”

People are people, even when scientists and CS faculty.

Of the 150 scientists who responded, most were confident that a gun in the home increases the chance that a woman living there will be murdered (72 percent agreed, 11 percent disagreed), that strict gun control laws reduce homicide (71 percent versus 12 percent), that more permissive gun laws have not reduced crime rates (62 percent versus 9 percent), that guns are used more often in crimes that in self-defense (73 percent versus 8 percent), and that a gun in the home makes it a more dangerous place to be (64 percent versus 5 percent).

Eighty-four percent of the respondents said that having a firearm at home increased the risk of suicide.

These figures stand sharply at odds with the opinions of the American public. A November 2014 Gallup poll found that 63 percent of Americans say that having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000. According to the same survey, about 40 percent of Americans keep a gun in the home.

via Where does science fall on the gun control debate? –

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. nickfalkner  |  June 24, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    I should note that this post inspired some of my thinking over on my current blog post. Thank you, Mark! (For everyone else, if you hate my blog post, blame me, not Mark.)

    People are people, indeed, and I am reminded of Marcus Aurelius’s thoughts on getting bogged down in argument beyond the point that it is useful, which I think distracts many people from their useful mission of change:

    “Waste no more time arguing about what a good [person] should be. Be one.”

  • […] we might wish that CS faculty would respond more to evidence than authority (see previous post on this theme), this insight suggests a path forward.  If we want CS faculty to improve their teaching and adopt […]

  • […] they made change, what convinced them to change, and how they decided if the change worked.  (See blog post about this here.)  The general theme was that these decisions rarely had an empirical […]

  • 4. rademi  |  September 21, 2015 at 11:39 am

    I was curious about the methodology behind this research, so I tried following the links provided from the article.

    I found but that was mostly about abstract distinctions such as the “strictness” of the laws. For example, I was disappointed that so little attention had been paid to the relevance and consequences of classes on firearm safety.

    Anyways, to me this feels like lazy reporting. I expect that some of the scientists have been conducting studies on such issues, but the results might not have the right kind of sensationalism, maybe. Or maybe they just didn’t think about asking.


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