Facts are great, except when they undermine our worldview. As a new study shows, when confronted with factual challenges, we often retreat by presenting weak explanations that are difficult — if not impossible — to disprove. More proof that you just can't win.
The new study, which was led by York University psychologist Justin Friesen, reveals the extent to which we're willing to downplay the degree to which our beliefs are dependent on factual evidence. When we're defending our cherished belief systems against contradictory evidence, we're apt to include unfalsifiable claims that cannot be tested empirically or conclusively refuted.
Especially when it comes from people who claim to be seekers of objective truth, such a response may seem weird and irrational. But as noted by Friesen, "accuracy is only one psychological motivation among many, and falsifiability or testability may be less important when the purpose of a belief serves other psychological motives (e.g., to maintain one's worldviews [or to] serve an identity)."
An article from the British Psychological Association explains how the experiments worked:
Justin Friesen and his colleagues conducted a series of studies each with a hundred or more participants...
In [one] study, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage were shown data on life outcomes of children raised by same-sex couples; by presenting these outcomes as either positive or troubled, participants were exposed to data that either supported or undermined their position. When the facts were on their side, they rated the issues of same-sex marriage and child-rearing as a matter for evidence to decide; when the facts were against them, they saw it as more a matter of opinion.
These experiments demonstrate the "offensive" and "defensive" functions of unfalsifiability. In the words of the researchers, "it allows religious adherents to hold their beliefs with more conviction and political partisans to polarize and criticize their opponents more extremely." At the same time, it allows both religious and political adherents to construe contradictory facts in more unfalsifiable terms. Over time, however, this retreat to unfalsifiable justifications makes our beliefs increasingly "unchallengeable."
Friesen says this strategy makes perfect sense in "a world where beliefs and ideas are becoming more easily testable by data."