What the March for Science Protestors Can Learn from Mean Girls

May 04

Protestors at the March for Science marching with signs and a banner that says science.

Climate scientist Michael Mann and science educator Bill Nye, center, lead the March for Science in Washington on April 22, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz

“You can’t sit with us” were the famous words spoken by Gretchen Wieners when they finally determined that Regina George, their former leader, was no longer a part of the Plastics in the movie Mean Girls. Regina reacted in the only way she knew how in order to ease her pain and maintain her perceived social identity – turn her former friends into outcasts themselves by spreading her version of the truth, the Burn Book, around the entire school.

While Mean Girls is only a movie, the lessons learned can help explain why the March for Science and the alternative National Park Service social media movement occurred as a reaction to the current Administration’s new rules and budgets cuts in regards to federally funded scientific studies and data.

Having a place to belong in society is vital to survival – to the point that our brains have adapted to think in certain ways that are only advantageous from a social, not a rational, perspective (Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber study this further in their book “The Enigma of Reason”). We gain an identity from the groups that we belong to which impacts how we view the world and process new information. When these beliefs are challenged, people tend to become more polarized and set on their original belief instead of being open to understanding the other side. This can result in biased assimilation (also called the backfire effect), which can increase the hostility one group has towards another, especially around contentious issues like capital punishment or whether violent video games inspire acts of violence.

This same theory applies to an individual’s perception of scientists and scientific claims. And yes, even Bill Nye the Science Guy is susceptible to bias (and is even biased himself). While science is rigorously tested and retested through peer review in order to uphold the independent integrity of the results, science is not understood in this same manner. Science is understood and incorporated into someone’s previously held beliefs and attitudes, and therefore loses it’s rigorously obtained independence. Our cognitive biases and personal identities make science political.

So not only are we influenced by how we identify with our groups in society, we place our own personal bias on scientific research, which then leads us to retreat further into our own beliefs and further from the centrist point of view. The dissonance that occurs between an opposing belief and a person’s identity is extremely uncomfortable and leads people to either change their identity (which is rarely the case) or to discredit and even ridicule the beliefs in question in order to ease this actual cognitive pain. This can be especially dangerous when a person’s bias is based off of the unfounded and uneducated bias of another – creating a cycle of believers whose perceived “truth” is not the actual truth at all (Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach recently published a book titled “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” that delves further into this idea).

The increasingly extreme polarization of opinion when it comes to science is found in the relationship the current Administration has with scientists and researchers. For every budget the Administration reduces and remark denying climate change, more scientists have signed up to run for Congress or have spoken out publically about the potential policy changes – something that scientists rarely do in the United States.

The more certain one side becomes of their view, the other side responds in kind. Given how biting the rhetoric and planned actions have become from the current Administration, it only provoked their opposition further. Their response so far? The historic March for Science that occurred on Earth Day and the anonymous defectors from the National Park Service who set up rogue social media accounts in order to provide climate change-specific information about their respective parks that they felt was being suppressed. Every action is a reaction to their perceived “out group” in order to soothe the cognitive dissonance that they feel and to help protect their societal group – and most importantly their sense of identity – from being attacked.

In Mean Girls, Tina Fey’s character was able to somewhat overcome the damage done by Regina and the Burn Book by bringing everyone together to work through the issues and to address everyone personally through group building activities in the school’s gymnasium. While this is not a feasible option for the President, his staff, and the scientific community, a similar approach can be applied to help ease the dissonance – being nice, appealing to a person’s emotions, and approaching them as a human being instead of the personification of an issue position.

By being cordial and making the effort to get to know someone, it can help to build bridges over the gaps of understanding that can develop between different groups in society. It also puts that person off guard; instead of instantly having to go on the offensive to protect their identity against a dissenting opinion, it allows people to separate their identity from the issue itself.

It is not perfect, especially since introducing emotional appeals when discussing science is antithetical to the idea that science is upheld by consistently proven, unbiased results. And while it’s no Cady Heron breaking up her prom queen crown and tossing it out to all of her fellow students, being nice and speaking to someone human to human instead of issue position to issue position is a step in the right direction.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 4th, 2017 at 3:59 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Climate Change, Environment, Ogilvy Washington, Policy, Research + Insights. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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