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)

You Are Not So Smart


50 Responses to "Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Cosmos May Cause a Backfire Effect"

  1. testy1   April 3, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Just wow. Where’s you get that idea? Certainly not from a Christian.

  2. Jim Eberle   March 27, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    I believe the phenomenon whereby one only seeks out evidence to support their existing views is called “confirmation bias”. Anyone else heard of this?

  3. Slade   March 26, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    Religious people just need to get over the fact that they have been brain washed by 2000 year old lies and are usually only capable of regurgitating the same lies and misinformation and when presented with facts their brains and what little rationality they have just melt away and they are only capable of belief in a lie. Because “god said so” if god told you to murder and burn your child, you would, wouldn’t you?

  4. Matt B   March 25, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Why not let the creationists have air time if they can get the sponsors. What would that do to hurt anyone. In fact it’d probably be a new hit comedy. Btw to lump creationists in with normal christisns is to say alchemy is a true and valid science. (Minus the actual gold from lead being done in small quantities). There are nuts in every group. That doesn’t make the group nuts. And there is no possibility for science to every fully refute the ecosystem of a higher being. Science and a personal religious view are two seperate things.

  5. testy1   March 25, 2014 at 3:59 am

    Wow Den. “No chance to educate me?” You know nothing about me. Founding member of The Planetary Society. I don’t read the Bible like a newspaper. It’s Tyson’s (and your) attacks, his propaganda, that turned me off.

    Play scientist, not anti-Christian. You will not turn off the millions and millions that see light in a different way.

    Science and Christianity can co-exist. I’m living proof.

    • Ellen   March 25, 2014 at 8:35 am

      Science is entirely based on proof, and believing something that you have no evidence of is NOT scientific. Christianity, with its emphasis on faith and its disregard for evidence, is inherently anti-science.

      • testy1   March 26, 2014 at 5:07 am

        “Science is entirely based on proof, and believing something that you have no evidence of is NOT scientific. Christianity, with its emphasis on faith and its disregard for evidence, is inherently anti-science.”

        Do you believe in the Big Bang? Dark Matter? Dark Energy? Muons? Quarks? Electrons? The God Particle?

        Science is NOT entirely based on proof. We make things up, then try to prove them.

        And re: “disregard for evidence” – that’s just not true. I have evidence. That’s all I need. And yes, when I talk and ask questions, I get answers. Some day, my friend, some day…

        Funny, you’ll believe something that some “scientist” wrote in a book, but it’s a fallacy if Christians do it. Even when it’s repeatable.

        Your mantra is “someone else proved it, so I believe it’s true”, I think. Surely you didn’t prove Einstein was correct, did you? You rely on faith that he and others have proved it. The difference is …?

  6. testy1   March 25, 2014 at 3:53 am

    The difference is you “imagine” it happens. Ours work.

  7. testy1   March 24, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    “Creationists will never build a better iPhone.” LOL. Actually, we already have the better iPhone. Can your iPhone talk to the Lord?

    • Rick   March 24, 2014 at 3:39 pm

      Yes if I just talk into my iPhone and don’t dial a number I can imagine I’m talking to anyone I like. Just like you.

    • andrew   March 25, 2014 at 8:18 pm

      When I use my iphone I can call someone and actually talk to them….and guess what someone talks back.

      • testy1   March 26, 2014 at 5:03 am

        Welcome to my world, andrew. Except I don’t need an iPhone. 😉

  8. testy1   March 24, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    If Tyson does not want push-back from Creationists, then he shouldn’t attack creationists on the show. I thought this was to be about science, not opinion.

    It’s nice that science is catching up to things written in the Bible. Expanding universe? Glad you figured that out. How many years did it take the “scientists” for that one?

    Don’t have that “Bid Bang” figured out yet? What’s taking so long? It’s not explainable until “science” explains it. I get it. (Read Genesis – I think it will help you guys.)

    God loves everyone, and wants you in the kingdom also. Someday you’ll see just how crazy you were.

    • Captain Obvious   March 24, 2014 at 3:34 pm

      “Someday you’ll see just how crazy you were.”

      Did your invisible friend tell you that? Or just the old guy who demands you pay him a portion of your salary?

    • Den   March 24, 2014 at 9:34 pm

      My, A “testy1” indeed. Science has been under attack for many years, Mr Tyson is just trying to educate you. Clearly he has no chance to do that. By the way, when you read Scriptures like a newspaper you get a literal impression of what they were meant to say. That is not at all what Scriptures are about. They are metaphorical stories meant to convey something that cannot understood as written. To read them literally is a total waste and a sad loss of the intended messages. Further, most of the stories predate Jesus by many hundreds of years. I’m sure my attempt to educate you is also wasted.

    • Ellen   March 25, 2014 at 8:39 am

      He didn’t attack creationists and he didn’t give his opinion. He stated scientific fact. Have you even watched the show? No, of course not.

      Face it: the bible is no more credible than any other holy text, and if you’d been born in a different country or time period, you wouldn’t be Christian, you’d be Muslim or Buddhist or Rastafarian.

      Science is true regardless of what you believe. Religion is OPINION, and it’s not based in any kind of fact or reality.

      • testy1   March 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm

        “Science is true regardless of what you believe.” Yep. Molecule is smallest. Wait, no, atom is. Wait, no, electron, proton, neutron. Wait, no, quark, Wait no, boson. Yeah, that’s it. Wait, no string. No wait, 2D string. Yeah, that’s the right answer. We’ll just keep changing until something works. (Note: Bible doesn’t change – Universe expands.

        Here’s a puzzler for you – NOTHING travels faster than light – one of those science PROOFS. So, if we look farther away with telescopes, we see close to the time of the big bang. At the time of the big bang, WE WERE THERE. So how did we get HERE before the light got here? I thought science says that’s impossible. hmmmm? I have this book that explains it. Pick it up and give it a read some day.

  9. Steven Prescott (@krondaddy87)   March 24, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Why is it that Christians feel they are the most entitled to everything. Very non-Christ like.

  10. Steven Prescott (@krondaddy87)   March 24, 2014 at 11:15 am

    It’s called Sunday worship. It’s on TV every Sunday morning. Some people are freaking idiots.

  11. Molly   March 24, 2014 at 7:18 am

    Einstein was a secular humanist, so no, religion wasn’t good enough for him.

  12. andres   March 24, 2014 at 6:46 am

    To Tim, about balancing now and then.
    Firstly, Rob’s correction about Einstein’s point of views is right on the nail.
    Secondly, it certainly was easier for the bright minds of the past to keep their religions views of the world while still doing science.
    But knowledge brought by science keeps growing and growing with time. And that fact alone makes it harder to keep thinking about the world like we are still in 1800’s

    • Hamsa   May 10, 2014 at 1:44 pm

      How So? That makes no sense (especially when talking about the brightest of mankind). Sounds like you’ve been brainwashed.

  13. CharleyX   March 24, 2014 at 6:41 am

    If the religious ding-dongs want to see themselves on TV, let them do it on the 700 Club.

  14. [email protected]   March 24, 2014 at 5:34 am

    DEVO was correct. We are in a Devolution.

  15. quattrone   March 24, 2014 at 4:54 am

    I don’t remember this controversy during Sagan’s series. I’m disappointed the national intellect seems to have regressed in the succeeding years.

    • Hamsa   May 10, 2014 at 1:48 pm

      You don’t remember Sagan’s controversy, because THERE WASN’T ANY. It was just a science show we all loved. This is not a science show, like Sagan’s or his wife’s. This is on par with Nazi propaganda…and has very little science in it. Just made up stories, and a great deal of hatred toward non-atheists. He just makes up stories as he goes along, then debunks them next episode. Bring back SAGAN any day.

  16. TheOX   March 24, 2014 at 4:27 am

    Creationist have a monolith of a world view – the Bible. The logic is simple. If the Bible is the “truth”, and “it is”, then everything else must be a lie – and everyone else must be stupid for believing these “lies” and of course, are going to hell.

    • Den   March 24, 2014 at 9:40 pm

      The Old Testament is the Jews’ book and they know how to read it. Creationists read everything literally which is not at all how it was written. Creationists, stay out of the Jews’ book, you have no clue of how to interpret it and no right to demean its beauty with your ignorance. Religion and Science can exist in harmony when the so-called “religious” put in the effort to read Scriptures correctly, as the metaphorical stories that they are.

      • Hamsa   May 10, 2014 at 1:54 pm

        So what happened BETWEEN the jews OT (around 3,000 ago), and creationists 200-300 yr old version. You’re missing 2,800 yrs of OT reading. Are you “special?”

  17. Michael   March 24, 2014 at 4:14 am

    Good idea. While we’re at it, I want equal time in their churches to talk about my beliefs. Balance is good, right?

  18. Bill Thompson   March 24, 2014 at 3:41 am

    Why is it that Science just can’t leave God alone? What is this obsession with disproving creation instead of just researching and documenting? Every great mind in existence today adds their contribution to the collective pie which leads to discoveries and inventions. Einstein said he wants to know how God “The Creator Not Savior” made everything and the rest is just details. Leave the science to scientists and auto repair to mechanics and God to anyone who chooses to believe and read the Bible. Why is there so much anger and hostility? Freedom of choice, freedom of religion, free to choose to believe or not…it’s the beauty of freewill.

    • Adam   March 24, 2014 at 5:17 am

      Bill, I have to point out that this entire controversy was instigated by Ken Ham and his creationist agenda. Cosmos is a show about the universe from a scientific perspective. It’s not aimed at disproving any one belief but asking what, why, and how about the world around us. The fact that the findings to the pursuit of these questions unsettles creationist like Mr. Ham is incidental and, frankly, their problem, not the problem of scientists. Cosmos is not a platform for them. The creationists are the ones that need to leave things alone. Not Cosmos.

    • Ellen   March 25, 2014 at 8:41 am

      You’re perfectly free to be ignorant, and we’re perfectly free to tell you how ignorant you are. Freedom of speech applies equally to people who think your opinion is absurd and anti-intellectual.

      Creation has ALREADY been disproved. You’re living in the past if you believe it.

  19. Captain Obvious   March 24, 2014 at 3:40 am

    It’s a science program, so it talks about science.

    If there are ridiculous people who feel science should not be taught, because it might conflict with their woo woo nonsense, that is unfortunate, but we shouldn’t bring the modern world to a screeching halt for a few luddites.

    Creationists will never build a better iPhone. Scientists will.

  20. danny   March 24, 2014 at 3:40 am

    They don’t need a tv show to balance Cosmos, they already have a perfectly good place to spread their views. Actually, come to think of it, there are Millions of such places all around the world. I think they call them ummm….churches? Yea… I think that’s the word I’m looking for…? Yea, definitely churches.

    • Steven Prescott (@krondaddy87)   March 24, 2014 at 11:23 am

      What would the equivalence for non religious folk. If there was a place on any particular day, where all the scientists showed up and preached facts it would be called… SCHOOL! (which isn’t very cheap and would probably benefit society much greater). Come to think of it, COSMOS is on a Sunday.

  21. George Russert   March 24, 2014 at 3:38 am


  22. Scribe   March 24, 2014 at 3:33 am

    This entire discussion is giving equal time to Fox News as a source of real news, with Real News organizations. We all know Faux News is a right wing propaganda politburo, sprinkled with smidgens of factual information to keep the dummies coming back for more! What the Creationist deserve is a ‘Dunce Cap’; and as long as they keep THEIR beliefs under it, fine! End of story!

  23. R. Barton   March 24, 2014 at 3:11 am

    I doubt the Politically Correct Lunatics could find sponsors for the production. Let’em rave…

  24. Tim Boomer   March 24, 2014 at 2:59 am

    Please don’ t lump all Christians into the same group as the minority crackpots that are looking more to increase their fellowships then to refute beliefs. Most Christians and many great minds throughout history have found a balance with science and the Bible and don’t seek to question what is widely accepted. Many articles, studies, and a plethora of posts in articles seek to disprove religion and marginalize believers rather than accept the views of those who have differing beliefs. Religion was good enough for Einstein and he understood the balance. The debate isn’t so much based on current relevancy, rather it’s stereotyping a small segment and creating hate.

    • Rob   March 24, 2014 at 3:23 am

      Religion was not good enough for Einstein. You are misinterpreting metaphors he used. read Einstein’s letter to Eric Gutkind, he makes his stance on god quite clear.

    • Den   March 24, 2014 at 9:46 pm

      The small segment of crackpots and haters is from the Christian camp, which is truly contrary to Jesus’s teaching. Thus true Christians have the burden of refuting these people. I sincerely wish you good luck with that!

    • Ellen   March 25, 2014 at 8:45 am

      You can’t “balance” science and the bible. Science is about reason, proof, and logic — making observations and seeing patterns. Religion is about rejecting proof and observation in favor of faith, which makes it inherently anti-science.

      • testy1   March 26, 2014 at 5:13 am

        Sorry Ellen, you’re just wrong. All wrong. “Making observations and seeing patterns” – I’ll accept that, can you? Religion does NOT reject proof and observation – not at all.

        • testy1   March 26, 2014 at 5:23 am

          Follow-up. Go talk to someone that has died and seen the glory. Dean Braxton has a nice book, In Heaven.

          Or, how about Eben Alexander – a neurosurgeon for 25 years, that had a Near Death Experience. “Before he underwent his journey, he could not reconcile his knowledge of neuroscience with any belief in heaven, God, or the soul. Today Alexander is a doctor who believes that true health can be achieved only when we realize that God and the soul are real and that death is not the end of personal existence but only a transition.”

          Go read “Proof of Heaven” NY Times Bestseller

          Is first-hand experience “proof and observation” enough?

          Seriously, go read it. You’ll be a better person for it.

          God bless you.

      • Hamsa   May 10, 2014 at 1:57 pm

        Who on earth told you something so silly…and better yet, WHY WOULD YOU BELIEVE THEM. Sad.

  25. Jesus was a leprechaun   March 24, 2014 at 2:52 am

    Equal time for unicorns too!!

  26. Samuel Walter   March 24, 2014 at 2:30 am

    People who believed ridiculous nonsense before Cosmos will believe absurd nonsense after Cosmos. Creationists are not the target audience; reasonable, eager, young minds are. The fact is, creationists don’t respect evidence, so there’s no evidence that will change their minds. But they certainly aren’t deserving of a platform for their ridiculous views, or equal time opposed to legitimate science in the media. Their beliefs are not equally valid, or representative of any sort of dissention among the scientific community.

  27. Rick Martin   March 24, 2014 at 2:11 am

    Giving stupidity equal time … that would be typical of Fox!

    • Den   March 24, 2014 at 9:49 pm

      I believe it is the Faux News Network’s policy to present a fair balance of ignorance and hysteria with their extreme right wing propaganda. Unfair and unbalanced views of reality 24/7.


Your Thoughts?