Thursday 24 January 2013

Why we don't believe the facts

I grew up believing, if you'll pardon my joke, that the Bible was not gospel, it was open to interpretation. It is a book written by men writing their ideas about God; it is not literally the word of God. God works in mysterious ways and understanding him is a tad more complex than counting out the lives of those in the Old Testament to arrive at the conclusion the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago. (see my blog: What the @#$%^* do I know about religion?)

However in talking about religion with other people I saw that others held onto their convictions, well, religiously and they could not be shaken in their belief the Earth was six thousand years old. I was a philistine spouting blasphemy. Today I refuse to debate such an issue as I know there is no way of logically working through this to arrive at an objective conclusion. You either believe or you don't believe. There is no argument, rationale, or scientific study which conclusively leads one to see the light of the Lord as opposed to the light of objective truth. There is only faith and with faith you don't debate, you believe. You just believe.

I started to closely follow American politics in the middle of 2011 when the GOP began their process of selecting a candidate to run against Obama in the 2012 election. While I had previously heard the oddball meanderings of the far right, I had not appreciated how much the Republican party had moved from their traditional Conservative "right" position further towards the far right of the political spectrum. As candidate after candidate presented their platforms I heard the most outlandish ideas, so outlandish I thought it was all great fodder for late night comedians. However as Mitt Romney captured the nomination and the GOP geared up to campaign against the Democrats, I began to realise this wasn't funny anymore. In fact, it was getting not just a little scary as those outlandish ideas had now coalesced into the Republican Party Platform. What if Romney did win the election? George W. Bush has been at times categorized as one of if not the worst president ever. Could the United States and could the world afford another Republican in the White House?

The following statements from the Republicans are either twisted truth or outright lies.

47% of Americans do not pay taxes.
(See my blog: Romney caught on video: 47% of Americans are Losers)

Obamacare will bankrupt the country.
(See my blog: Obamacare: Congratulations on doing the right thing, America!)

Cutting taxes for the wealthy creates jobs
(See my blog: Is the right answer counter-intuitive? (Part Deux))

Abstinence is the only solution
(See my blog: Abortion: Rick Perry and Sex Education: Abstinence works!)

The list goes on and on. Each one of these statements can be disproved with solid verifiable facts and yet the GOP and the far right persists in repeating these ideas over and over again while completely ignoring the counter-arguments and refusing to accept the facts as facts. Why?

I see the word defined as follows (Dictionary.Com):

1. the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.

2. such a body of doctrine, myth, etc., with reference to some political and social plan, as that of fascism, along with the devices for putting it into operation.

I have heard tell "belief", certainly with its association to religion, also means that a person can and will discount anything which does not support said belief. Is this the explanation for Republicans or the far right continually promoting ideas which do not seem to correspond to reality?

Chris Mooney
I had never heard of this gentleman until I ran across an article he penned for MotherJones (The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science  ... with lots of reference links). Surprise, surprise, I discover this U.S. journalist and academic has spent considerable time and effort investigating this very phenomenon. With a focus on science in politics, Mr. Mooney has authored a number of books in which he explores how ideology and faith trumps fact and specifically how the Republican party in its pursuit of its ideological goals has and will systemically reject scientific fact if it does not support their worldview. His description of the situation and his many supporting examples made me wonder if somebody has drunk the Kool-Aid. Does the "collective" support itself in its own craziness? And does the "collective" help one another in putting on blinders to avoid seeing the objective?

Mr. Mooney lays out the premise of his work by starting with a study done in the 1950s by Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger of a doomsday cult who predicted the end of the world on December 21, 1954. Obviously this didn't turn out to be true and Festinger examined the adherents and their reaction to this failed prophecy. If they believed it to be true but it turned out not to be true, how did they rationalize the failure of their belief? (This reminds me of the predictions of Harold Camping, an 89 year old Christian radio broadcaster: the Rapture on May 21, 2011 and the end of the world on October 21, 2011. See my blog my blog: May 21: The End of the World (Afterword May 22))

Chris Mooney goes on to talk about "motivated reasoning" whereby our pre-existing beliefs can skew our thoughts so that even in the face of unequivocal evidence we can reject ideas of climate change, vaccines are not linked to autism, Obamacare does not include death panels, and the president was born in America and he is Christian. There seems to be a mixture of emotions and rational thought where emotions are visceral and immediate while rational thought comes later and more slowly. If someone believes in divine creation, they will reject anything which does not support their belief. They aren't reasoning; they are rationalizing. Consequently the perspective of the individual is biased; it is not objective. It is not scientific; it is subjective.

This rejection of fact extends to scientific expertise. Depending on your outlook on issues, you will accept or reject supposed experts. If you a pro-gun, you will reject anti-gun experts and anti-gun studies. Even if there is double blind testing with confirmed unbiased analysis, you will still interpret this as being wrong. You are not convinced. People rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views. Mooney points out that trying to persuade people with evidence and argument can actually backfire and people can end up holding onto their views even more tenaciously.

We gravitate to what supports our views with media from newspapers, television, and social media like Facebook. Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam backing the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque called the Ground Zero mosque, was rumored to be a terrorist-sympathizer. A study showed that viewers of Fox News were more likely to believe this rumor than non-Fox viewers. Even though George Bush stated that America is not at war with Islam, the viewers of Fox News continue to associate terrorism with all Muslims. (As an aside, it is curious how these same viewers forget that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was Christian. This 1995 bombing remained the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until 9/11.)

Mr. Mooney touches upon the supposed link between childhood vaccines and autism. The assertion that childhood vaccines are driving autism rates has been undermined by multiple epidemiological studies—as well as the simple fact that autism rates continue to rise, even though the alleged offending agent in vaccines (a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal) has long since been removed. (see Wikipedia: Thiomersal controversy)

What is Chris Mooney's conclusion? Scientific denial is more prominent on the political right. The Republicans, the Christian right or more Christian fundamentalists are quicker to dismiss evidence and arguments which fly in the face of their beliefs. They believe what they believe and nobody is going to sway them from their faith. But in saying that, he adds that we all in some circumstances have blinders are and may not be able to be totally objective. So, what do any of us do about this?

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.

Yes, there's the message but there is also how the message is packaged. A study about climate change, how the message was presented, and the reaction of different groups led to the conclusion that starting with values, social values or moral values, meant the message was better accepted. 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.

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.

Final Word
Values, yes values. I think we can all agree on being happy, being employed, being profitable, and doing good for one another. But how to get from here to there? How do we all get on board to we are all pulling in the same direction?

Los Angeles Times - Aug 15/2004
Holy Terror by Sam Harris
Ancient religious texts shouldn't form the basis of social policy in the 21st century. The Bible was written at a time when people thought the Earth was flat, when the wheelbarrow was high tech.

Today is not yesterday. And what I did yesterday may not always be the correct course of action today. The world changes. The country changes. We change. The author Rita Mae Brown said, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." We need to try something different but we need to lead with the values not necessarily with the facts.


Wikipedia: Chris Mooney (journalist)
Christopher Cole Mooney (born September 20, 1977) is a U.S. journalist and academic who focuses on science in politics.

MotherJones - June 2011
The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science by Chris Mooney
How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.

Wikipedia: The Republican War on Science
The Republican War on Science is a book by Chris C. Mooney, an American journalist who focuses on the politics of science policy. In the book, Mooney discusses the Republican Party leadership's stance on science, and in particular that of the George W. Bush administration, with regard to issues such as global warming, the evolution/creation controversy, bioethics, alternative medicine, pollution, separation of church and state, and the government funding of education, research, and environmental protection. The book argues that the administration regularly distorted and/or suppressed scientific research to further its own political aims.

Amazon: The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney
Science has never been more crucial to deciding the political issues facing the country. Yet science and scientists have less influence with the federal government than at any time since Richard Nixon fired his science advisors. In the White House and Congress today, findings are reported in a politicized manner; spun or distorted to fit the speaker’s agenda; or, when they’re too inconvenient, ignored entirely. On a broad array of issues-stem cell research, climate change, evolution, sex education, product safety, environmental regulation, and many others-the Bush administration’s positions fly in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus. Federal science agencies-once fiercely independent under both Republican and Democratic presidents-are increasingly staffed by political appointees who know industry lobbyists and evangelical activists far better than they know the science. This is not unique to the Bush administration, but it is largely a Republican phenomenon, born of a conservative dislike of environmental, health, and safety regulation, and at the extremes, of evolution and legalized abortion. In The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney ties together the disparate strands of the attack on science into a compelling and frightening account of our government’s increasing unwillingness to distinguish between legitimate research and ideologically driven pseudoscience.

Wikipedia: Sam Harris (author)
Sam Harris (born 1967) is an American author, philosopher, public intellectual, and neuroscientist, as well as the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason.


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