Monday, April 25, 2011
Over at Mother Jones is an article on "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science," which takes on a vital subject, but whose analysis and persuasiveness are somewhat hampered by a major misconception on the author's part about what the purpose of science (or, really, knowledge in general) is.
The piece starts out promisingly enough, considering several clear-cut or common examples of people allowing unexamined emotions to interfere with their reasoning.
In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers (PDF). Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end -- winning our "case" -- and is shot through with biases. They include "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.Everyone, myself included, has, at some time or another, initially reacted to unpleasant news by denying it outright or attempting to explain it away. The author even correctly notes that, "[R]easoning comes later, works slower -- and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum." Unfortunately, Chris Mooney lacks two crucial tools for his analysis: Ayn Rand's revolutionary perspective on the nature of emotions (as , "lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values") and the connection she draws between thought, emotion, and values, which I once summarized as follows:
That's a lot of jargon, but we all understand these mechanisms when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If I don't want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody else -- everybody who isn't too emotionally invested to accept it, anyway. That's not to suggest that we aren't also motivated to perceive the world accurately -- we are. Or that we never change our minds -- we do. It's just that we have other important goals besides accuracy -- including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self -- and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.
Two emotions that many ... people consider opposites, love and hate, are understood better with Rand's insight. To love is to value. Hatred is an emotional response to something that is the opposite of, or a threat to, that which we love. Why is this important? Because values motivate us as living beings. In order to survive, to prosper, and to be happy, we must identify, attain, and sometimes protect our values. What do you like to do? Exploring your emotional responses to certain activities can help you identify the right career, rewarding hobbies, and potential friends or romantic partners among those who share your interests.Whether an emotion provides constructive motivation will, of course, depend on whether one's evaluation of the world is objective, and that will ultimately depend on whether one considers all facts that are available and how one does so (i.e., how thoroughly his philosophical beliefs are based on reality). One must step back (at some point) and consider why one feels a given emotion any time it is not clear why one is experiencing it. Emotions tell us only about how we evaluate some fact: They do not provide us with information about the outside world, as perception, for example, does.
This all may seem extraneous to Mooney's point, or at least beyond the scope of his article, but I think it goes a long way towards explaining what struck me as a bizarre way to end an article on such an important subject: [Added during editing: One can argue that the article is focused on an activist audience, and that this criticism is unfair. I don't have time to think about this issue and edit accordingly, so I will simply note this concern now.]
The upshot: All we can currently bank on is the fact that we all have blinders in some situations. The question then becomes: What can be done to counteract human nature itself?This point is true, as far as the art (and science) of persuasion go, but as living beings whose means of survival is the application of our reasoning minds to the problems of our own survival, shouldn't our first concern (as members of a general audience) be to know that something is, in fact, correct, before we go about trying to persuade others of its truth?
Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.
You can follow the logic to its conclusion: Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a "culture war of fact." In other words, paradoxically, you don't lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values -- so as to give the facts a fighting chance. [bold added]
I am agnostic (tending towards skepticism) about whether there is man-made global warming myself, but let's say there is for the sake of argument. Mooney's closing paragraphs nevertheless have me scratching my head, because they slip in an assumption that ought to be questioned: Here we have an article about biased thinking that seems to take government solutions to any and every issue that science can speak to as a given.
When it seems like every scientific study is used as a rationalization to impose ever more government control over our lives, the negative reception so many scientific results meet is, although not rational, at least understandable. But really, how much noise would anyone make (one way or the other) about: AGW, if the state weren't on the cusp of being able to ration fuel economy-wide; evolution, if the state didn't run the educational system; or vaccines, if the state couldn't force people to administer them?
And how much less like a scolding/back-slapping of his readers would this article have been, had it emphasized the personal importance of overcoming biased thinking for one's own benefit, instead of speaking simply to the question of persuading others of scientific results as a means of getting them to accept a political agenda that does not follow from them?
Primo Pomodoro! That's Italian for "first tomato." On seeing a recent comment of mine on personal productivity, a friend told me about a personal productivity technique I'd never heard of, the Pomodoro Technique (PDF). I found it useful yesterday in getting through a backlog of mindless tasks -- it almost made it feel like a game -- and am going to try using one uninterrupted twenty-five minute "pomodoro" each morning to plan my day.
Whether you use Windows, Mac, or Linux, you may find this chart instructive for your next computer repair.
What's worse than failure? Hint: It can keep you from pursuing what you are passionate about. (HT: John Cook)
Somewhat related to today's post, Michael Hurd comments on, "The Greatest Human Error."
This might describe me once I get to try it: Fun with Gravity recommends Happy Camper IPA. Love the can design, and the name...
Today: Corrected a grammatical error.