Tag Archives: Science Communication

The Backfire Effect: Plain Truth Sometimes Increases Ignorance


The backfire effect is a name for the human social phenomena that exists where when we are given evidence counter to our already established belief, even if that belief is a hope, desire or the like in disguise, we tend to not only reject the conflicting evidence, but believe even more strongly in our original proposition as a result of the encounter.

This makes the many self appointed “rational warriors” in our culture agents of increasing cultural ignorance when tactics of persuasion that include things like ridicule, and loudly speaking what is perceived to be “important science” to what is is perceived as “the unwashed masses” are employed. Rather than agents of increasing rationality, ridicule and brutal honesty are not effective, regardless of whether or not they may be true.

We see this cultural phenomena in the anti vaccine movement, and other beliefs that require a vigorous denial of plain evidence to maintain. My guess is the reasons for this are at least partially rooted in the fact that, generally speaking, we are social-emotional creatures with a small capacity for rational thought. We are not rational creatures who are also social and emotional. When sincere efforts to combat ignorance simply use fact, and do not also accommodate those emotional-social realities, they tend to backfire fortifying ignorance among those of us who perceive we’re under attack.

Our personal identities have their own ideological immune response system and like our biological one, we become more able to fend off “attacks” over time as we’re exposed to them. Additionally, we can develop what amounts to an ideological autoimmune disease in our perception faculties, where we retreat to a belief matrix that is increasingly divorced from pragmatic realities.

The methods by which we communicate, including the social-emotional subtext of those communications, become part of the means by which things are accepted or rejected. This is the reality of the social economy. Genuine persuasion appears to be built on trust, and that trust sometimes must be established over time, especially when in the context of a prior relational strain stemming from perceived disrespect, or a history of prior emotional strain related to the topic on the part of the person(s) being communicated with. The capacity to communicate in the context of ideological differences requires more than an economy of facts. It must also include a baseline of respect at the very least as a starter for any real communication to have a chance to take place.

*France’s fact-based approach to teaching the public about Lyme disease has backfired*

From the article: “Rather than quieting the concerns of Lyme advocates, France’s national plan is further entrenching two extremes.”



More information on the backfire effect: https://medium.com/homeland-security/the-social-psychology-of-the-backfire-effect-locking-up-the-gears-of-your-mind-a79d4e6e8061


There are some who think the backfire effect is not real, or at least exxagerated. Here is an article about this.