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. 😉

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