Firmly Held Beliefs

Kathy Van Hoeck

Journalist David McRaney writes a blog called “You Are Not So Smart.” His article “The Backfire Effect” begins this way: “The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking. The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”1

McRaney discusses studies showing that, when people are confronted with research that contradicts their beliefs, they simply dismiss it or even reject the science altogether. Attitudes toward science seem to be fundamental differences in mindset. I recently shared a story concerning beliefs about vaccination on Facebook and wondered aloud how this could have happened. A very dear childhood friend commented that because of the “fraud” surrounding global climate change, people don’t trust science anymore. I realized that arguing with him would be pointless because his views are entrenched.

My students come to class already with their own firmly held beliefs: that they didn’t evolve from monkeys; that global climate change is a hoax; that vaccinations cause autism. In November 2015, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) met in Providence, RI. The opening session featured three speakers, each of whom was asked to discuss how to deal with teaching controversy. The topics were very timely: evolution, global climate change, and vaccination.

The overall message was not to be confrontational when discussing them. I incorporate all three topics into my curriculum, and I have always found that students are more willing to at least listen if their beliefs aren’t challenged. As my mother always said, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Dismissing their firmly held beliefs out of hand probably causes students to mentally cling to their beliefs and resist any changes.

A few weeks ago, two girls in my Anatomy and Physiology class came walking into my classroom with “healthy drinks” in their hands comparing the labels and discussing a detox regimen they were both trying to follow. They were comparing the flavors and which ones they could stomach. I asked to look at the labels and what they were drinking didn’t seem to be harmful; they contained lots of fruit and vegetable juices, and were probably quite healthy.

But I tried to convince them that the value of detoxing was a marketing ploy.2 They just stared at me and smiled politely. Where do these ideas come from, and how can we teach students to be critical thinkers when confronted with them?

Every year I enjoy reading the Beloit College Mindset List,3 which lists things that the incoming freshman class has either always known or has never seen. Here are a few items from this year’s list:

  • Google has always been there, in its founding words, “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible.” 
  • Email has become the new “formal” communication, while texts and tweets remain enclaves for the casual.
  • They have grown up treating Wi-Fi as an entitlement.

Some educators claim that we should not be teaching things to students that they can Google. But Google is vast. Students don’t even know what they don’t know. They are also vulnerable to conflicting ideas. A librarian in Pasadena, facing the elimination of her job due to budget cuts, and arguing for why we need librarians, wrote that she had been told that the moon landing never happened and that the Holocaust was a hoax, because they had seen it on YouTube.4 I’m sure those students thought they had done their research.

Technology is a double-edged sword: How do we help students to be able to sift through the noise to judge whether what they are reading is credible or not? Our most important job as science teachers is to teach how science works, how to analyze scientific research, and the role of peer review.

We need to start early; get kids to love science by encouraging elementary teachers, most of whom are not science majors and don’t feel comfortable teaching it. Elementary students love science because for the most part they just get to observe the world. Kids need to be up and out of their seats and doing science. By doing it themselves, they gain an appreciation for the process. They should critique each others’ work. As they progress through higher levels of learning, they should be encouraged to practice scientific argumentation and to evaluate sites based on the evidence.

Many students think that there is no place for them in a science career and that everything must have already been discovered. In 2005, Science magazine published a list of the 125 science questions that were still unanswered.5 One of my students later told me that he found this inspiring; there was a place for him in a science field. In fact, jobs in STEM related fields are projected to grow 17 percent by 2018.6 Even if they don’t go into a science field, they are our future voters and policymakers. When someone asks me what I do, very often they say, “Oh, I hated science when I was in high school!” and this probably carries over to their general attitude about science.

I hope to give my students a love for science and hopefully my passion for biology will rub off on them. But if I can instill in my students a healthy skepticism, they should recognize pseudoscientific ideas when they are confronted with them, and they will be able to base future decisions on the weight of the evidence.


1. McRaney, D.  The Backfire Effect. 2011,  June 10. Retrieved from: http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/

2. McRaney, D.  The Backfire Effect. 2011,  June 10, retrieved from http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/

3. The Mindset List. 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.beloit.edu/mindset/2019/

4. Scribner, S. Saving the Google Students. 2010, March 21. Retrieved from: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/mar/21/opinion/la-oe-scribner21-2010mar21

5. 125 Questions: What Don’t We Know? 2005, 1 July. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/misc/webfeat/125th/

6. STEM: Good Jobs Now and For the Future Retrieved from: http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/stemfinalyjuly14_1.pdf

Kathy Van Hoeck teaches AP Biology, Anatomy/Physiology, Genetics, and Freshman Honors Biology in Elmhurst, IL. She serves on Teacher Advisory Boards for the Center for Biomolecular Modeling at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, is an AP Insight consultant for the College Board, and serves as an AP Biology Reader. In her little bit of spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family and rarely spends a weekend at home.