In the world there exist 2 basics kinds of statements: positive and normative. A positive statement talks about the way things are. A normative statement talks about the way things should be. For example:
Positive statement: Gun violence takes many lives a year.
Normative statement: Guns are immoral; they should be banned.
You might be able to infer that ideally we should stick to positive statements. Even saying “the death penalty should be abolished because it doesn’t deter crime” is a positive statement, as this can be defended by fact. Normative statements are just based on our moral biases, and while it’s great to have morals, they usually aren’t facts.
Sticking to the data in drawing conclusions is critical. Unfortunately, most people don’t do this—scientists have found that “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger”¹. This is referred to as the “backfire effect”.
I have a feeling that this effect is much stronger the older people get, as they develop a world-view they deem correct. Humans want to think we are very smart, so few are willing to acknowledge how insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things—it would be a depressing way to live life! Thus, many take themselves (and life) way too seriously, as it gives them a sense of purpose. Admitting that individually we matter very little can seem depressing, but is actually quite freeing—if it doesn’t matter what you do, then why waste time adhering to societies’ mores? I believe that if more people thought this way and focused on maximizing their own happiness, we would have a more productive society—a view called utilitarianism.
This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t try at their jobs or in life because it doesn’t matter, just that they shouldn’t hold themselves to other’s expectations or change who they are. If every individual approaches their job with a sense of purpose and genuinely tries to make others lives’ happier through their work, the world would be a much better place. Anyone who has seen Jiro: Dreams of Sushi will understand how mastering your craft, no matter how simple, can be immensely satisfying.
Tracing back to the idea that people don’t like to change their minds and admit they are wrong, you can see how maintaining a sense of grand purpose might make you more hesitant to admit you are wrong. Once you have accepted that everything is temporary—from “truths” both scientific and personal to political systems to human life—changing your mind on an issue in the face of new data no longer seems as scary.
It is also a truth that generally, more intelligent people have an easier time admitting when they are wrong or don’t know something. There is no greater “danger sign” than someone who believes they have the correct opinion or knowledge about everything in the world. Obviously, it's not fun to admit you are wrong, but the ability to objectively ponder your views and ask "Could this be incorrect?" is critical.
Admitting you are wrong largely centers around being aware of the underlying framework your assumptions are based off of. If you are anti-welfare because you think that certain people are lazy and worth less as humans², no amount of data will ever change your mind about this topic. If you don’t like welfare, however, because you think it provides negative incentives to individuals and costs too much³, you might change your mind if you got information that said the opposite.
Now you may be starting to see how flexibility of opinion is largely a function of intelligence—the smarter you are, the more likely you are to know why you believe something, and, if that “why” is challenged, you might be able to accept your own fallibility. In the words of Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner,
It has long been said that the three hardest words to say in the English language are "I love you". We disagree. For most people, it is much harder to say "I don't know". That's a shame, for until you can admit what you don't yet know, it's virtually impossible to learn what you need to. – excerpt from Think Like a Freak, highly recommended reading
So, next time you hear data that opposes your beliefs, don’t automatically shut down your brain. Once you consider opposing viewpoints thoughtfully a few times, it becomes much easier to do.⁴ Ask yourself: are my opinions positive, or normative? Data doesn’t lie, but people do.⁵ Which one will you trust?
²This is a normative statement—no amount of data could prove this
³This would be a positive statement—you could probably find data that backs this up.
⁴A bonus stemming from this thinking: you will be much more pleasant to be around if you don’t automatically dismiss others as wrong.
⁵Anyone who has read a Malcolm Gladwell book can understand that our innate biases’ tend to cloud human judgment. Numbers coming from a machine aren’t colored by preconceived notions unless the people controlling the machine are.