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“We follow the science,” has been the refrain of politicians around the world as they seek to combat COVID-19.  Similarly, corporations rightly encourage leaders to approach challenges with a scientific mindset.

At Threshold we regard neuroscience as a rich seam of knowledge to be mined for practical benefits.  However, we warn our clients to be wary of being misled by fool’s gold. Embracing the scientific mindset means approaching evidence with a healthy scepticism.

Research shows that, not surprisingly, those of us with a scientific mindset are less likely to be swayed by misinformation.  However, new findings suggest, rather worryingly, that when that misinformation is dressed up with scientific terminology, we’re actually more likely to believe it.

A new and deadly virus threatens us – or does it?

In one study, researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign invited just over 500 people to read an article about a new virus called ‘Valza virus’.  According to the article it had been created as a bioweapon in a government lab, a fact that was, apparently, subsequently covered up.  The researchers showed study participants two versions of the article.  Both were written in an informal style that was intended to mimic that used by conspiracy theorists.  However, one version contained quotes from scientists, while the other only quoted activists.

Readers were then quizzed about the authority and credibility of the article. Overall, those with experience of science and research were less likely to buy this conspiracy theory.   However, they were more likely to believe it if they read the version of the article that contained quotes from scientists – and to recommend that it be shared more widely.  However, for the other group, those with less time for science, the presence of scientists made no difference to its credibility or their wish to share it.

According to the researchers, given that a belief in science can increase people’s vulnerability to pseudoscience, rather than promoting science generally, it might be better to focus on the need for critical evaluation skills.

Questioning the science

A couple of years ago, in our Newsletter, we asked whether we more readily see an explanation as being more valid if it features a reference to neuroscience, in particular.  Professor Diego Fernandez-Duque of Villanova University sought to test this hypothesis. Across a series of four studies, he asked dozens of students to rate the validity of explanations of psychological phenomena, in a number of mock papers.

In some of these papers, the researchers had planted flawed or circular explanations. Some explanations were laced with superfluous mentions of neuroscience, and some were not. Professor Fernandez-Duque and his team discovered that even the smartest students were significantly more likely to rate an explanation as valid if it contained a superfluous mention of neuroscience.

This is why, at Threshold, we advise anyone exploring the findings of studies involving neuroscience or looking at recommendations that appear to be based on it to be prepared to play devil’s advocate.  We suggest that they ask some challenging questions so that they can get to the truth.  That after all, is surely the most scientific approach and the one that yields the greatest benefits.