It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.
Chris Mooney offered up a veritable briar patch of stochastic possibilities with his recent article, The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science, at Mother Jones.
This is not a new topic for the Open Left crowd. Some topics, however, may benefit from being repeated. There’s a lot of “motivated reasoning”, I think, in the deference so many on the leftish end of the US political spectrum show toward Obama and the Democratic Party in general. This is not a novel idea. It has been hashed over by others.
There is much to be discussed about the motivations that beget the kind of rational use of the irrational that underlies this phenomenon. Or is it, the irrational use of rationality? Ivy League lawyer, Dan Kahan, sums it up:
The study subjects weren’t “anti-science”—not in their own minds, anyway. It’s just that “science” was whatever they wanted it to be.
Apparently, it is natural to redefine words, concepts even, to satisfy some our less than rationally formed beliefs. This should be no real surprise to anyone that has read Aldous Huxley, for example this poem, or more comprehensively “Heaven and Hell” and “The Doors of Perception”. Where most conceive of the 5 human senses as a kind of reaching out to our local environment, Huxley describes it as a closing off. More like a check valve than an antennae. The psychological check-points each us carries around in our minds, well in our brains at least, by which undesirable ideas and facts are filtered.
Arthur Lupia is quoted by Mooney,
We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
I wonder which facts scare me the most? What do I push away? What do those carefully constructed blind spots hide?
Perhaps this bit?
Even if individual researchers are prone to falling in love with their own theories, the broader processes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism are designed to ensure that, eventually, the best ideas prevail.
Am I the only one that wonders where on the arc of eventually we now find ourselves? Maybe the fault line goes even deeper? Could it? What if the whole concept that the “broader processes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism” actually accomplish the purposes for which they were designed is merely another layer of motivated reasoning? Or, maybe we wholly misunderstand the purposes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism. [I tend to see it as a mechanism very much like the DNA editing schemes that have evolved to ensure the fidelity of copied genetic information. As much as we should be certain that the information has been checked over, at least to some extent. Maybe that’s another story.]
When you get right down to it, that’s what a place like Merge Left is about, in one sense or another, it should be a place to “check over” information. Of course, we are all motivated by this reasoning, why else would we self select for this place and others of the same flavor? Motivation is one of those double-edged sword things, it can lead you astray. I mean, if motivated reasoning is part of being human, then it does no good to rail against it, or to ignore it. No matter how distasteful the bitter conclusions are to our tongues.
My effort to shake off (at least) some of the motivated reasoning that clings to my lab coats and suffuses my slide shows like sunlight enlivens each leaf was stimulated by the citation of Monica Prasad’s work on understanding the persistence of the belief in Saddam’s WMD stockpiles:
As it turned out, not even Bush’s own words could change the minds of these Bush voters—just 1 of the 49 partisans who originally believed the Iraq-Al Qaeda claim changed his or her mind. Far more common was resisting the correction in a variety of ways, either by coming up with counterarguments or by simply being unmovable
No counter arguments. I adopted the perspective of motivated reasoning and applied it to the process of scientific inquiry itself. Let’s not forget that vectorial kind of science practiced by humans appears to be unique in the animal world. Other primates, birds and other of our fellow creatures practice tool-making and even teach the skills to younger individuals passing non-genetic information to the next generations. As of the moment, however, we’ve not observed any libraries, universities, or trade schools among these species. Ach! See how insidious these motivated reasons have become? Who am I to say what intelligence is, let alone measure it and compare it between living beings of which I know so very little? (Man, its tough to not be immovable, I’ll tell you what).
[A]ccording to Charles Taber and Milton Lodge of Stony Brook, one insidious aspect of motivated reasoning is that political sophisticates are prone to be more biased than those who know less about the issues. “People who have a dislike of some policy—for example, abortion—if they’re unsophisticated they can just reject it out of hand,” says Lodge. “But if they’re sophisticated, they can go one step further and start coming up with counterarguments.” These individuals are just as emotionally driven and biased as the rest of us, but they’re able to generate more and better reasons to explain why they’re right—and so their minds become harder to change.
I should quit while I’m ahead.
This may help explain a curious pattern Nyhan and his colleagues found when they tried to test the fallacy (PDF) that President Obama is a Muslim. When a nonwhite researcher was administering their study, research subjects were amenable to changing their minds about the president’s religion and updating incorrect views. But when only white researchers were present, GOP survey subjects in particular were more likely to believe the Obama Muslim myth than before. The subjects were using “social desirabililty” to tailor their beliefs (or stated beliefs, anyway) to whoever was listening.
There’s that check valve again. Why not loosen it a bit?
The great valves open suddenly,
Revealing, not God’s radiant throne,
But the fires of wrath and agony.