Wednesday 31 August 2011

Never doubt the power of doubt

Although I am not an expert, I think it was Nietzsche who famously said that "it is not enough to prove something, one has also to seduce or elevate people to it". Words which perhaps carry much more meaning in this age of information overload, where anyone can open their PC or laptop or phone and present their opinion or counter-opinion to the world in any number of ways. And quite a large percentage of the population exercise that right, including me.

But in the sea of opinions how do you find something that roughly equates as 'truth'? What criteria do people use to judge the quality of an opinion and can such judgements be 'manipulated'?

Well, the answer to the latter question is 'yes'; our judgement and opinion can be manipulated, whether we realise it or not. This can be done subtly through the use of things like nudge theory or it can be done more overtly by the use of 'expert' opinion.

In the world of autism research and opinion, there have been many expert opinions down the years. Many have attempted to 'tell' people what autism is and isn't, what causes and doesn't cause it, what works intervention-wise and what doesn't. Many opinions have seemingly been presented as fact on the basis of varying degrees of probability, despite the fact that few facts actually exist about autism. Indeed the fluidity of research findings in autism have led some people to question why so many certainties have been put as certainties.

One example, until fairly recently, autism was a genetic condition [sic]; the hunt was on the for the autism gene or genes and millions of pounds/dollars was committed. Now after some pretty heavy duty research findings, opinions are beginning to be modified; so maybe 'some' genetics but perhaps also 'some' environment as well, as per the Autism Spring post from Tom Insel of the NIMH. Some expert opinions in this area have been shaken.

A recent blogpost on the Psychology Today site might provide a solution for the authority figure and the communication of facts via expert opinions: don't be seen to be so certain, express some doubt. The post by Susan Cain is a short one, but interesting, as she discusses this study* by Karmarkar and Tormala also covered here. The main premise of the 'Bianco's restaurant' study is that a little less self-assurance and a little doubt might go quite some way to getting people to believe you and your message.

So the next time someone steps up and authoritatively tells you that diet has absolutely no connection to autism or schizophrenia, ask them to phrase it with a touch of doubt before you are ready to believe them.

* Karmarkar UR. & Tormala ZL. “Believe me, I have no idea what I’m talking about": The effects of source certainty on consumer involvement and persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research. April 2010.

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