My favourite part of the Chronicle of Higher Education is the First Person segment – stories in which individuals talk about their experiences. Over at TPM Josh Marshall commented on the fact that the tide appears to have finally turned against Gonzales, and gives credit to Comey’s testimony…not because it told people anything new about Gonzales, but rather, because it gave it a first person perspective.
People relate bettter to anecdotes than they do to “cold facts”. Certainly, I remember the stories better than the lectures from classes I attended. Case studies are more interesting to read than are simple factual statement. But anecdotes can also be the enemy of clear communication. People trying to sell things (be it herbal cure-alls or religious charlatanry) use anecdotes, not facts. Sure things like “I used X and now I am healed”, or “I accepted Jesus and now I no longer fear death” can make for convincing stories, but the require (a) that you believe the person, and (b) that there isn’t another explanation for the observation.
It seems like the conventional wisdom for this is something along the line of “people are poorly educated about science”. If you don’t understand the scientific method, you can’t tell the difference between a scientific study and an anecdote. While that is true some of the time, there is also the issue of resistance to science – many people reject conventional science. According to a paper in Science (Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg, 2007, “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science,” Science, 316(5827), 996-997, 18 May 2007, DOI: 10.1126/science.1133398), part of that science-scepticism comes from a deep-seated resistance to science that “arise[s] in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations.” (See the discussion of this at The Panda’s Thumb).