Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Cosmos May Cause a Backfire Effect

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, featuring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, may cause a backfire effect among creationists who demand their own air time on FOX. However, Tyson had told the media to stop “balancing” the debate on scientific issues by bringing on people who do not believe in science. He said that people cannot cherry-pick facts in science to wrap around their own beliefs and call that “facts.” “You don’t talk about the spherical Earth with NASA, and then say let’s give equal time to the flat Earthers,” Tyson said.

Even if creationists are provided with hard evidence that support current scientific theories, they are most likely to experience the backfire effect, which describes how some people’s beliefs get stronger and deeper when their most cherished convictions are challenged by contradictory facts or evidence. The term was first coined by political scientists Brendan Nyhan, Ph.D., of Dartmouth University and Jason Reifler, Ph.D., of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

In their paper, When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, the authors wrote, “People typically receive corrective information within ‘objective’ news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source. In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions – a view that is consistent with a wide array of research.” In other words, most people are more likely to read a newspaper or magazine article that supports or reaffirms their opinions and beliefs rather than reading one that refutes them.

For example, in April 2011, Gallop Poll asked 1,018 adults on the phone whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States or not. The results showed that 38 percent of the Americans surveyed believed that Obama was definitely born in the U.S. while 24 percent believed that he is probably or definitely born in another country. In early May, after Obama’s birth certificate was released to the public, 47 percent of the same people surveyed believed Obama was definitely born in the U.S. while 13 percent believed otherwise. Although the skepticism about President Obama’s place of birth was reduced, there were still a significant number of people who firmly believed that Obama was born in another country. Also, one in five Americans in the sample population could not make up their minds even after the evidence was provided.

The backfire effect may not have been something Tyson or Ann Druyan, the original producer of Cosmos and widow of Carl Sagan, had intended. The intention was to carry on Sagan’s legacy of bringing science to the masses as well as inspiring a new generation of young scientists — not to spark a debate whether it is true or not with people who do not believe in science. “We hope to awaken people to the power of the scientific perspective and to the feeling, the thrill, of knowing the little we do know about being alive in the universe,” said Druyan during an interview with Wired. “If we could accomplish that, that would be tremendously gratifying.”

Tyson may be better off by spending more time promoting what he loves than debating with those who object what Cosmos teaches because of the backfire effect. Science may have answers to some of the mysteries of the universe, but if hard evidence suggests a current theory or observation to be wrong, science would most likely admit its mistake, update itself, and eat a piece of humble pie.

Opinion by Nick Ng




When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions; Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler (Dartmouth University)

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