Month: December 2016

Psych Studies With Small Samples

(Upon request, some context forĀ a previous post crticizing pop-sci reporting of “you can’t change your mind” psych studies:)

I’m making the usual grouch about the way psych studies tend to be reported, where you read the academic paper and brain scans of six undergrads show that they sense the temperature in a white room is 6% lower than the temperature in a pink room (I’m making this up; I don’t think this study exists), and then it gets reported in the newspaper as “scientists prove the US could save $5 billion on energy costs every year if we’d wear pink-tinted glasses.”

Most recently, I read a piece that did brain scans of a handful of people to see which topics lit up the parts of their brains that had to do with self-identity. Some of them rated as more personal than others (like gun policy) and others rated as not particularly linked to self definition (like tax policy). Which is kind of interesting, although pretty limited and not a finding that’s been replicated. But it was reported as “don’t talk politics with anyone or they’ll feel personally attacked,” which was a pretty wild leap. Tax policy is politics. Gun policy would light up the parts of my brain that have to do with evaluating my personal safety, but that doesn’t mean I have strong opinions on gun laws (I don’t).



People Change Their Minds All the Time

There are a few pop-sci articles circulating that extrapolate from tendencies observed in small-sample studies of 19-year-olds to declare that it’s impossible to change anyone’s mind on their political beliefs. Even on individual issues. They’ll just get threatened and retreat further into their own madness. WE’RE DOOMED! DOOMED! THERE IS NO WAY OUT!

Except…these articles are obviously wrong. If large numbers of us didn’t change our minds all the time, we wouldn’t have to vote every few years. We could just do a headcount. Polls would be 100% accurate. Graphs of public approval ratings throughout campaign season would be straight horizontal lines.

You matter. Your words and actions matter. Changing someone’s mind isn’t always easy, but it’s always possible.

In 1825, in a letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson explained why he’d bothered to write the Declaration of Independence when they were already at war. He said:

“Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.”

So speak honestly. When you know the truth, speak clearly. You aren’t shouting into a void. There are times when words can do more than armies.