Faith, scepticism and the unswayable minority

How do you stop people believing myths? The sort answer is, it depends on how strongly people believe the myths. I’ve just read The Debunking Handbook – an excellent, free and succinct (only 9 pages in length!) manual produced by Sceptical Science for tackling misconceptions. In the section on what it refers to as the ‘Worldview Backfire Effect’ it makes the point that, “You … stand a greater chance of correcting misinformation among those not as firmly decided about hot-button issues. This suggests that outreaches should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unswayable minority.”

When I wrote What if… I accepted that no matter how I presented my arguments and regardless of the evidence I assembled, there would be some people who were so firmly wedded to an opposing set of beliefs that I could never convince them. But for those who were undecided I went to a lot of time and trouble to anticipate how and why they might disagree in the hope that this approach might at least make them more aware of their own cognitive biases.

But when it comes to the unswayable minority, I have to accept that, for some, I am a hate-filled fascist who hates children and kicks puppies. They are likely to disbelieve anything I say simply because it’s me saying it. Even more moderate and reasonable people with whom I disagree tend to see me as closed-minded and inflexible in my views.

Consider this recent exchange on Twitter. First of all, self-confessed evidence sceptic Sue Cowley made the following statement:

To which David Jackson, a partner of the Innovation Unit, responded by saying, “As with PBL. Some things are true beyond ‘evidence’.”

The idea that a thing could be “true beyond ‘evidence'” intrigued me so I asked – very politely – how that work. He replied with this:

Being sceptical – it would appear – means that I am less likely to understand or accept how Project Based Learning (PBL) could be true beyond ‘evidence’. The implication being, we should accept that it’s the right thing to do as an article of faith. This is, as far as it goes, fair enough. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert suggests we are predisposed to take pretty much anything, even obviously nonsensical or ludicrous things, on faith. He submits that in order to try to understand a statement we must first believe it. Only when we have worked out what it would mean for the statement to be true can we choose not to believe it. So although certain beliefs are contested, I’m willing to accept, for instance, that the Holocaust occurred, that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and that Elvis didn’t. Others may not be so eager to accept these articles of faith, but in order not to do so they must first believe them. So, while I understand how faith works, my scepticism means I’m unlikely to accept religious claims as true in the absence of substantiating ‘evidence’.

Jackson suggested that my inability to accept his worldview was “a mindset thing” i.e. my refusal to believe was evidence of a fixed mindset whereas as his unquestioning belief should perhaps be seen as him having a more elevated growth mindset.

Now, I’ve logged my scepticism of the ‘mindset thing’ before and won’t go into it again here, but I do think it’s interesting that being prepared to accept something without evidence should be praised as ‘growth mindset’ instead of condemned as credulity. In the end Jackson closed down the discussion by calling my questions an ‘inquisition’ – a position from which it’s much easier to dehumanise opposing opinion and dismiss criticism.

And dismissing criticism is vital in reducing cognitive dissonance. When we come across information which contradicts our beliefs we must choose one of three options:

  1. Change our beliefs to fit the evidence.
  2. Seek out new evidence which confirms the belief we’d prefer to hold.
  3. Reduce the importance of disconfirming evidence.

Cognitive dissonance has a dramatic impact on how we react when confronted with folk who disagree with our most fervently held beliefs. We tend to assume they must be ignorant, stupid or evil. When we’re critical of anything that someone else holds dear, the standard response is for our opponent to point out that we clearly don’t understand their position. When we present the incontestable evidence that we do understand, opponents often treat us as if we’re a bit silly: only an idiot could believe anything so ludicrous and patently untrue. When they finally accept that our counter-arguments are sufficiently cogent that we prove ourselves to possess at least a modicum of intelligence, there are only two remaining propositions: either we are evil or they are wrong. Of these, it is far easier, and massively less damaging to the sense of self, to assume that we must be unscrupulous villains seeking to poison children’s life chances.

What I think some of those who see me as the member of some sinister right-wing ‘neo-trad’ conspiracy forget (or are perhaps unaware) is that it wasn’t always so. I made the point to Jackson that I began as a believer of PBL and only when presented with ‘evidence‘ did I come to change my mind. Does this make me more open or closed-minded? Should people be more alarmed by my scepticism of arguments which are unsupported by evidence, or by Jackson’s and Cowley’s scepticism of ‘evidence’?

After enough time and enough repetition, even the most troubling ideas can be accepted as true. Schopenhauer (may have) observed, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”I labour on in the hope that the swayable majority will continue to be persuaded by the balance of probabilities.

19 Responses to Faith, scepticism and the unswayable minority

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    I rather prefer Geoffrey Warnock’s take on the issue:

    “Metaphysical systems do not yield, as a rule, to frontal attack. Their odd property of being demonstrable, only so to speak from within, confers on them a high resistance to attack from outside. The onslaughts of critics to whom, as likely as not, their strange tenets are nearly unintelligible, are apt to seem to those enshrined inside, misdirected and irrelevant. Such systems are more vulnerable to ennui than disproof. They are citadels, much shot at perhaps, but never taken by storm, which are quietly discovered one day to be no longer inhabited.”

  2. Sara Hjelm says:

    Thanks for the Debunking handbook .. Most useful.
    My initial thoughts go to the stages of paradigm shifts that were thaught in basic Science Theory back in the 1970s. But I will from now on only think of citadels, gradually more and more empty, with cold and echoing rooms of stone. Good for nothing but the National Trust and occasional study visits by interested scholars of educational history.

  3. Warren says:

    It is hard to believe that someone in the world of education would state that anything in is “true beyond evidence”. It’s a miracle that he is in a position of influence. It comes back to faith and you do not need to apply evidence to faith.

  4. doylea36 says:

    This really struck a chord for me. Just this weekend I was asked to attend a course on differentiation and then to share the lessons with my colleagues back at school. I was extremely disappointed and not a little frustrated that the course consisted of no more than multiple intelligences, VARK, big paper and post-it notes. Obviously you’ve discussed MI and the utter lack of evidence for it improving learning previously as have many others. I decided not to interrupt with this information but rather to discuss with the instructor quietly after the course so that others may be spared but what you’ve written about here happened exactly. Even with some of my colleagues back at school, they have such faith in MI that they have no interest in even looking at the sources for my point of view. We really risk the blind leading the blind with so much ignorance masquerading as common knowledge in teaching.

  5. I think what you may need to dig a bit deeper into David is what constitutes “evidence”. I suspect that in both Sue Cowley and David Jackson’s responses what they see as evidence of the effectiveness of PBL and Philosophy for Children is not measurable by standard “tests”. Both approaches focus on creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving which are not well measured (if at all) in most standardised testing approaches. The Victorian Government (Australia) is currently trialling a new online tool ( for this as part of rolling out critical and creating thinking in classes across the state. It will be interesting to see what results.

  6. David F says:

    Hi David….Check this out: “Countering the Pedagogy of Extremism: Reflective Narratives and
    Critiques of Problem-Based Learning”

  7. goddinho says:

    If anyone wants a closer look at the evidence/faith dichotomy beyond education, they’d do well to study the climate change debate, in which Cook and Lewandowsky have played a significant part.

  8. RG says:

    I think what might be going on here is the age old “it was good for me” approach from teachers. If I look back on my education, the really important experiences that made me love learning and knowledge were quite open-ended and self-directed. The process of discovery left more of an indelible mark than anything I was told outright – not sure why this is. I have also witnessed my students going through a similar process. How do I know? Well, what they have said to me over time and how they have continued to go down particular lines of enquiry, often leading to university course choices. I certainly don’t think that so called discovery models of learning should be absolute, the status quo, or even a preferred method. I do know they can “work” because I have direct experience of this. As ever, a mix seems good and is probably what is happening on the ground.

    • David Didau says:

      No claims discover approaches can’t or don’t work. The claim is specifically that they don’t work best for novices. Our confirmation bias prevent us from extrapolating meaningfully from our experiences as we ignore disconfirming evidence and pay particular attention to anything which supports our biases. As such, if we feel a discovery approach worked well for us, we will be alert for signs of it working for students and do doubt we will find some. We will also be blind to signs that it fails some students with the consequence that we come believe something =that is untrue statistically or probabilistically.

  9. There’s so much dogma in British schools and it really gets my goat. However, what about good ideas that currently haven’t been evidenced? What if there’s just no way to measure it yet? Science always gives us ways to measure stuff, but it may take some time before theoretical / practical frameworks allow it to happen. Therefore would such ideas be truth beyond evidence until evidence is available? Or should we wait for the evidence or at least mean to evidence before we try things?

    • David Didau says:

      “Good ideas” and innovation are the bane of the education system. One of the biggest difficulties is how to stop teachers doing ‘good things’ in order to get them to concentrate on better things.

  10. Andy Leask says:

    Good post – I am a lot less sceptical of the Growth Mindset thing than you, but the notion that you had a fixed mindset for seeking evidence over intuition is preposterous. From my understanding of mindsets – and the limited, but I believe genuine impact it can have in teaching – it has nothing to do with your acceptance of fact, and everything to do with your reaction to facts (i.e. how you respond to feedback). One cannot respond to feedback without accepting evidence; a nebulous, new-agey, unshakeable belief in something, in defiance of empirical evidence seems more closed-minded to me…

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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