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Thinking like a scientist is really hard, even for scientists. It requires putting aside your own prior beliefs, evaluating the quality and meaning of the evidence before you, and weighing it in the context of earlier findings. But parking your own agenda and staying objective is not the human way.

Consider that even though scientific evidence overwhelming supports the theory of evolution, a third of Americans think the theory is “absolutely false”. Similarly, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has contributed to climate change, yet around a third of Americans doubt it.

We Brits are just as blinkered. In a recent survey, over 96 per cent of teachers here said they believed pupils learn better when taught via their preferred learning style, even though scientific support for the concept is virtually non-existent. Why is it so hard to think like a scientist? In a new chapter in the Psychology of Learning and Motivation book series, Priti Shah at the University of Michigan and her colleagues have taken a detailed look at the reasons, and here we pull out five key insights:

We’re swayed by anecdotes

When making everyday decisions, such as whether to begin a new treatment or sign up to a particular class at uni, most of us are influenced more powerfully by personal testimony from a single person than by impersonal ratings or outcomes averaged across many people. This is the power of anecdote to dull our critical faculties. In a study published last year Fernando Rodriguez and his colleagues asked dozens of students to evaluate scientific news reports that drew inappropriate conclusions from weak evidence. Some of the reports opened with an anecdote supporting the inappropriate conclusion, other reports lacked an anecdote and acted as a control condition. Regardless of their level of university training or knowledge of scientific concepts, the students were less competent at critically evaluating the reports when they opened with an anecdote. “Anecdotal stories can undermine our ability to make scientifically driven judgements in real-world contexts,” the researchers said. Of course much health and science news in the mainstream media is delivered via anecdotes, increasing the likelihood that news consumers will swallow any claims whole.

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