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Why Obstinate Humans Find It Hard To Believe Science
David Brin   Apr 24, 2011   Contrary Brin  

Human psychology being what it is, even the smartest scientists must be open to accountability and criticism. For the rest of us, it’s even more essential.

Not even those of us who are scientifically trained actually do objective science consistently well. Like all other humans, we are predisposed, with biased, emotionally prejudiced human minds, to first see what we want or expect to see—a dilemma first illustrated by Plato as “The Allegory of the Cave.”

In one of the few things Plato got right, he showed how each of us allows our subjective will to overlay and mask anything inconvenient about the objective world…


Now Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, explains how this age-old human flaw is being analyzed in scientific detail, by researchers who reveal it to be dismayingly intractable. It seems that obstinacy is as deeply rooted as love or sex!

From Mooney’s new article, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science”:

Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it.

That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

Of course, there’s hope, or we would never have climbed so far. In the last few centuries, we discovered a general way around this dilemma. It is through the enlightenment process that underlies almost everything successful about our civilization—not only science but also free markets, justice and democracy. It is the one tool that has ever allowed humans to penetrate the veil of their own talented delusions.
It is called Reciprocal Accountability. Or criticism, the only known antidote to error.

We may not be able to spot our own mistakes and delusions, but others will gladly point them out for us! Moreover, this favor is one that your FOES will happily do for you! (How nice of them.) And, in return, you will eagerly return the favor.

In our Enlightenment—and especially in science—this process is tuned to maximize truth-output and minimize blood-on-the-floor. But it requires some maturity. Some willingness to let the process play out. Willingness to negotiate. Calmness and even humor.

It doesn’t work amid rage or “culture war.” Which is precisely why culture war is being pushed on us. By those who want the Enlightenment to fail.

And that brings us back to Mooney’s cogent and detailed article, which explains the problem of “narrowcasting” to specifically biased audience groups, who get to wallow in endless reinforcement of their pre-existing views, avoiding the discomfort of cognitive dissonance from things like evidence ...

... a problem—exacerbated by the Internet age—that I predicted in my 1989 novel Earth, describing a near future in which people shift their attention only to those sources that confirm and reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. (A forecast I would rather not have seen come true.)

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


This is a great article, with perhaps an unfortunate title. The issue isn’t limited to science, but to critical thinking in general. What is missing today is dialog rather than diatribe, a true willingness both shape and be shaped by a community larger than our own choosing.
Another factor in addition to the ones you outline is intentional misinformation from seemingly credible sources. Since many of us can’t know *first* hand (e.g. facts on climate change), we defer to those whom we trust and believe the source more than we believe the data. (That was both the blessing and the curse of Al Gore entring the discussion.)
The media used to play the role of neutral, unbiased trust object. We could read and feel we were getting both sides of an issue and were then in a position to make up our own minds. Then the commerce/editorial wall was torn down and the editorial office opted to evangelize rather than inform. Throw in that while data may be neutral, conclusions are often subjective, and we find ourselves where we are now.
We need information reform. A government representative, whether in office or running for office, should not be permitted to deliberately spread misinformation. We used to call it propaganda; today we call it news.

“It doesn’t work amid rage or “culture war.” Which is precisely why culture war is being pushed on us. By those who want the Enlightenment to fail.”

I’m not convinced. I agree that truth-output is unlikely to happen in the midst of rage, but culture war? Surely this is just the kind of arena where the kind of criticism you’re looking for is likely to arise.

I’m also sceptical regarding the idea that the culture war is being “pushed on us…by those who want the Enlightenment to fail”. I really don’t think it’s that conscious, and I also think that those who really want the Enlightenment to fail, such as religious fundamentalist, are a different group from the Rupert Murdochs of the world who are probably be the ones that can most credibly accused of “pushing” a culture war on the rest of us.

I’m wondering to what extent dor’s bygone “neutral, unbiased”, trusted media ever really existed. Were the media really less biased or were we just less aware? At least now we have a multiplicity of narrowcasts, leading to differently-deluded audiences that can then become aware of, criticize and learn from each other. An example of those would be the shift from creationism towards “intelligent design”: this would not have happened if the creationists had not been confronted by defenders of Darwin, which formced them to shift ground in order to remain credible.

By the way I think there’s another antidote to error, to be deployed alongside criticism, and which I’ve mentioned before: namely *curiosity*. Always keeping n mind the possibility that one may he completely wrong, and adopting an attitude of curiosity towards points of view that conflict with our own: this seems to me to be the surest way to get to the truth.

“I’m wondering to what extent dor’s bygone “neutral, unbiased”, trusted media ever really existed. Were the media really less biased or were we just less aware? At least now we have a multiplicity of narrowcasts, leading to differently-deluded audiences that can then become aware of, criticize and learn from each other.”

Perhaps a matter of degrees rather than on/off. Certainly “Yellow” journalism existed in the past, Hearst the most notable example. But it was not the only type of journalism; the ethics in the industry (separation of ad revenue from editorial content being a big one) made for balance and self-policing.
Multiplicity is a wonderful thing but it could be improved by more forums where the diverse views are presented side-by-side and critical review is encouraged.
Curiosity is key; perhaps an imperative for a free society. How do we not only foster a respect for curiosity but nurture it? How do we stress that the devil’s advocate is as important role as the innovator? How do we teach the difference between objective and subjective reasoning?

@dor…good questions! Not by being defeatist, which is the gripe I still have with some of David’s arguments. I guess the easy answer is that there are many, many ways in which we can do this. Come to think of it…what about parenting licenses smile
And education, and…blogging!

Also by being curious *ourselves*. there’s nothing like leading by example. Perhaps we should all resolve to have discussions at leat three times a day with opinionated people who are unaware of the weak evidential basis for their opinions, and try to understand - through observations, questions or whatever - why they think the way they do. We could also set ourselves challenges to change such a person’s mind about something. That way we learn about what it actually does take to get people to see the other side of the story. The write a book about your experiences! Could be fun…

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