Biased "vs." Bias

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.

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.
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:
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?

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]
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?

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?

-- CAV

----- In Other News -----

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.


kelleyn said...

I read Chris Mooney's blog every day for a couple of years. After living for some time in Kooky Santa Cruz I felt I needed to recover and learn some serious thinking skills. Skepticism of the CSICOP type was the natural response to all that woo. It was helpful in the very beginning, but I felt I was searching down blind alleys when the government, along with a lack of confidence in the human mind, turned out to be at the end of so many paths of reasoning.

Mooney's blog was also how I found Pharyngula, which unfortunately ended up being my gateway to the entire lefty blogosphere. That didn't help my thinking skills at all.

Gus Van Horn said...

I didn't harp on it, but probably the runner-up for most egregious flaw was the fact that, at one moment, Mooney correctly observes that...

"Ironically, in part because researchers employ so much nuance and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading and misinterpretation. Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that's relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store."

... only to go on and speak of AGW like it's settled science. Even if it were, it's a new theory, and a much less obvious one than, say, the theory of gravity. For both of these reasons, it's ridiculous to act like laymen should treat it as settled science.

I can, nevertheless see why you followed him for a while. He does cover some good material in this piece.

mtnrunner2 said...

Heh. When I saw it was Mother Jones, I knew exactly where that was going to end up: global warming. I've rolled my eyes many a time looking at their magazine covers while waiting in the checkout line at Whole Paycheck (Foods).

>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

OK, as long as that comfortable context doesn't involve me and Al Gore in a hot tub together.

As for the article excerpts, first of all, we accept ideas more readily from those we respect for other reasons. That's perfectly reasonable.

Second, I think it's patently obvious that the right fears warming claims NOT because of anything to do with science or psychology, but because of the unholy tie between science and policy: if we accept the science, then we are automatically accepting massive violations of our rights.

Obviously my position is that there is no such connection. If there's anthropogenic warming, OK, but you have to find a way to deal with it that doesn't involve violating individual rights. Since right writ large has no such clear conception of rights, they have to reject the science in order to get the policy outcome they desire.

However, it's not either/or. You can accept the science (I'm not saying we necessarily should) and have freedom at the same time.

Gus Van Horn said...

It can reasonable to accept what others we respect do, so long as we are clear with ourselves that (a) that's what we're doing, (b) we need to work when we can to question those things in order to confirm/refute them, and (c) that those other people, being human, can be wholly or partly wrong.

And then, of course, there are conservatives I generally respect, but whose take on global warming I've come to question because I wonder (a) where THEY got it from, and (b) whether some of those sources might be cherry-picking data and interpretations to fit their political agenda, given that they accept the same warming-energy rationing package deal that the left does.

So, despite Mooney's clear warmist-rationing agenda, I think he does make a good point here and there.