Science vs. belief systems

22/05/2013 - Health and safety

Experts often harp on about science, yet we often find it difficult to overcome our own belief systems which we’ve developed through years of experience even when the hard data is telling us something else.

Z’s in-house Human Factors expert, Dr Kathleen Callaghan, explains why it’s so difficult to confront our own beliefs and why it’s so important to base decisions, particularly health and safety decisions, on science.

We all know that (assuming the coin isn’t tampered with) there is a 50% chance of a head and 50% of a tail on a coin flip. That is a fact based on the science of statistics. Yet some people (those who gamble amongst others) have a belief that the science doesn’t apply to them. Personal experience is a very powerful driver of belief. Science lost a whole heap of credibility for a while with my young son when the coin landed heads up 14 times in a row.

Our personal experiences become deeply embedded into parts of our brain that inform our decision-making. Personal experiences are obviously invaluable however they can have a downside. Studies over decades have shown that our existing ideas/beliefs act as a filter, often distorting new information to make it more consistent with our current view of things. This hinders us with being able to change our minds when presented with new information. Say I pass you in the corridor and say hello and you don’t reply. If I have an existing belief that you really don’t like me I’ll interpret that as you ignoring me and will be even more of the opinion that you don’t like me. If I have an existing belief that we get along just fine, I’ll interpret that as you being preoccupied and simply didn’t notice – nothing sinister at all.

We are also used to believing what our senses tell us – we believe the information from our bodies. Surely if we are ‘normal’ we won’t hear, see or feel things that aren’t there.

Aircraft pilots are a group that needs to work hard to disbelieve what their bodies are telling them – ignore very strong sensations from their bodies and believe the instruments only. The ‘graveyard spin’ (very well named) is a good example. There are certain actions a pilot must absolutely do to recover from a spin. One is that the pilot must put in full opposite rudder, i.e. spinning to the left, apply full right rudder (the rudder controls the plane flying left or right). When the aircraft is spinning to the left the pilot feels spinning to the left and in this case the sensation is true. However, when the spin has stopped the pilot now feels him/herself spinning to the right, but this is not the reality of what is happening. If the pilot acts on what his/her body is telling them, they would apply full left rudder to try and recover from a spin that doesn’t exist, re-enter the spin to the left and spin down until impact with the ground. I know how overwhelming that sensation from the body can be through my own pilot and air force training – your body is screaming at you to ‘apply rudder or I’ll die’ when your instruments are screaming at you ‘don’t apply rudder or you’ll die’.

Another, very personal example is when I was a junior doctor I saw an old man run over by a truck. I was three cars back from the crash with all my windows up and the music playing to deafening levels. I saw the accident very clearly and as the man was hit I ‘heard’ a horrible squelching noise. That visual and auditory memory is still very vivid. But I couldn’t have actually heard anything. It just wasn’t possible for me to have heard any noise at all. I have a completely clear and vivid, yet completely false memory of the event.

Which is one reason why we are now discovering so many people in jail where the science (e.g. DNA) says they can’t have done the crime. Eye witness testimony is subject to huge error. As Lord Devlin (a former Law Lord) wrote “The highly reputable, absolutely sincere, perfectly coherent and apparently convincing witness may, as experience has quite often shown, be mistaken”

The science also shows that the more strongly held the belief the more negatively we react when confronted with a challenge to that belief. Just imagine being told that you didn’t see what you ‘know’ you saw, you didn’t hear the ‘squelch’, your really good idea has been tried before and been shown to be totally ineffective, and so on.

So what does this mean for us and our own opinions and beliefs? Everyone is entitled to hold an opinion and being able to constructively discuss differences of opinion is vital to personal and organisational growth. The value of science is that it allows one way of objectively measuring the weight that different opinions should be given in decision making. To use a medical context - which of the below would give you the most reassurance that the operation your surgeon was recommending is something you should agree to undergo?

1. He/she read it in the latest woman’s mag and it seemed really cool

2. A surgical colleague told him/her he tried it and it seemed to work

3. It was agreed as being the best treatment option by a number of surgeons at a meeting

4. A good scientific study was done that compared it to other treatment options and it gave the best results

5. A large number of good scientific studies were done that compared it to other treatment options and it consistently gave the best result.

When I am asked for my opinion as an expert, for example in a legal setting, I am not being asked for what I personally believe. I am being asked to present all options that have some scientific credibility and the scientific evidence underlying each option. Sometimes I can say to a Judge that the science is really clear and there are essentially no differing opinions amongst the scientists and sometimes I have to say that there are multiple, equally valid options given the science at this point in time.

Lastly, we often get told that other factors outside science may be more important. That may well be, but it is important to note that really good science is also holistic. The results obtained should include, wherever relevant, factors such as effectiveness, acceptability (including values and emotional response), feasibility and cost.

So we don’t harp on about science because we think it is the ‘end all and be all’ of decision-making. But given where New Zealand currently sits in terms of taking a scientific approach, a little more science can only benefit us all.


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