I ain’t the only one

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

~ Michael Shermer in an article titled: When Facts Backfire. This article appeared in the January issue of Scientific American.

This was the opening paragraph to Shermer’s article. While my own experience confirms the truth of his statement, the cartoon of a flat-earther and a round-earther (what shall we call them?) shaking hands confirmed my suspicions of who Shermer had in mind when he wrote the paragraph.

He continued to argue that creationists, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, climate deniers, and Obama birthers, in his view, double down on their positions in spite of overwhelming evidence, due to their worldview commitments.

He provided at the end of the article six suggestions for tackling this difficult problem of talking with such Cretans:

  1. Keep emotions out of the exchange.
  2. Discuss, don’t attack.
  3. Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately.
  4. Show respect.
  5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion.
  6. Try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.

I appreciate that Shermer is working on the tone of his tribe, considering that many of them consider that my belief in God is as rational as belief in a flat earth. An unfortunate number of articles in Scientific American have an unnecessarily pedantic and antagonistic tone. Following these six steps would take the magazine in a helpful direction. I would like to humbly suggest a seventh piece of advice for Shermer and his intended audience: realize that you too regularly deal with the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance and the very real possibility of ignoring or even distorting evidence in support of your positions.

I work hard to identify and describe this tendency in my own life and in my own circles. My worldview demands this type of introspection. My conclusion is that Shermer’s concern isn’t a problem that afflicts religious people or conservatives alone, but all of God’s children. Shermer should be able to encourage his readers to acknowledge this without considering such an admission to be a blow to his community’s credibility. In fact, the absence of such an admission further undermines my willingness to trust such advocates of Science as impartial.

I recommend this article from the Hedgehog Review by Ari N. Schulman. Schulman addresses the pervasive sense of mistrust that society shares of the scientific community and offers balanced perspectives how the various groups involved can constructively move forward.

I’d also like to point out that I’ve got Locke on my side here:

All men are liable to error, and most men are in many points, by passion and interest, under temptation to it. If we could but see the secret motives that influenced the men of name and learning in the world, and the leaders of parties, we should not always find that it was the embracing of truth for its own sake, that made them espouse the doctrines they owned and maintained.

Let ever so much probability hang on one side of a covetous man’s reasoning, and money on the other; it is easy to forsee which will outweigh. Earthly minds, like mud walls resist the strongest batteries: and though, perhaps, sometimes the force of a clear argument may make some impression, yet they nevertheless stand firm, and keep out the enemy, truth, that would captivate or disturb them… Quod volumus, facile credimus; what suits our wishes, is forwardly believed.

~ John Locke, quoted in Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, by W. Jay Wood.