A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Mar 22, 2017

This Article Won't Change Your Mind: The Reason Facts Aren't Enough

Information is no longer merely factual: it has become cultural and tribal. JL

Julie Beck reports in The Atlantic:

Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs. People often don’t engage with information as information but as a marker of identity. Information becomes tribal.
I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘She’s totally lying.’ At the same time, I remember something in my mind saying, ‘And that doesn’t matter.’” For Daniel Shaw, believing the words of the guru he had spent years devoted to wasn’t blind faith exactly. It was something he chose. “I remember actually consciously making that choice.”
There are facts, and there are beliefs, and there are things you want so badly to believe that they become as facts to you.
Back in 1980, Shaw had arrived at a Siddha Yoga meditation center in upstate New York during what he says was a “very vulnerable point in my life.” He’d had trouble with relationships, and at work, and none of the therapies he’d tried really seemed to help. But with Siddha Yoga, “my experiences were so good and meditation felt so beneficial [that] I really walked into it more and more deeply. At one point, I felt that I had found my life’s calling.” So, in 1985, he saved up money and flew to India to join the staff of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the spiritual leader of the organization, which had tens of thousands of followers. Shaw rose through the ranks, and spent a lot of time traveling for the organization, sometimes with Gurumayi, sometimes checking up on centers around the U.S.
But in 1994, Siddha Yoga became the subject of an exposé in The New Yorker. The article by Lis Harris detailed allegations of sexual abuse against Gurumayi’s predecessor, as well as accusations that Gurumayi forcibly ousted her own brother, Nityananda, from the organization. Shaw says he was already hearing “whispers” of sexual abuse when he joined in the 80s, but “I chose to decide that

they couldn’t be true.” One day shortly after he flew to India, Shaw and the other staff members had gathered for a meeting, and Gurumayi had explained that her brother and popular co-leader was leaving the organization voluntarily. That was when Shaw realized he was being lied to. And when he decided it didn’t matter—“because she’s still the guru, and she’s still only doing everything for the best reasons. So it doesn’t matter that she’s lying.’” (For her part, Gurumayi has denied banishing her brother, and Siddha Yoga is still going strong. Gurumayi, though unnamed, is presumed to be the featured guru in Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love.)
But that was then. Shaw eventually found his way out of Siddha Yoga and became a psychotherapist. These days, he dedicates part of his practice to working with former cult members and family members of people in cults.
The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed
that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,” Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Fails, their 1957 book about this study. “Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.”This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors  known in the psychology literature as “motivated reasoning.” Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.
It starts at the borders of attention—what people even allow to breach their bubbles. In a 1967 study, researchers had undergrads listen to some pre-recorded speeches, with a catch—the speeches were pretty staticky. But, the participants could press a button that reduced the static for a few seconds if they wanted to get a clearer listen. Sometimes the speeches were about smoking—either linking it to cancer, or disputing that link—and sometimes it was a speech attacking Christianity. Students who smoked were very eager to tune in to the speech that suggested cigarettes might not cause cancer, whereas nonsmokers were more likely to slam on the button for the antismoking speech. Similarly, the more-frequent churchgoers were happy to let the anti-Christian speech dissolve into static while the less religious would give the button a few presses.
Outside of a lab, this kind of selective exposure is even easier. You can just switch off the radio, change channels, only like the Facebook pages that give you the kind of news you prefer. You can construct a pillow fort of the information that’s comfortable.
Most people aren’t totally ensconced in a cushiony cave, though. They build windows in the fort, they peek out from time to time, they go for long strolls out in the world. And so, they will occasionally encounter information that suggests something they believe is wrong. A lot of these instances are no big deal, and people change their minds if the evidence shows they should—you thought it was supposed to be nice out today, you step out the door and it’s raining, you grab an umbrella. Simple as that. But if the thing you might be wrong about is a belief that’s deeply tied to your identity or worldview—the guru you’ve dedicated your life to is accused of some terrible things, the cigarettes you’re addicted to can kill you—well, then people become logical Simone Bileses, doing all the mental gymnastics it takes to remain convinced that they’re right.
People see evidence that disagrees with them as weaker, because ultimately, they’re asking themselves fundamentally different questions when evaluating
that evidence, depending on whether they want to believe what it suggests or not, according to psychologist Tom Gilovich. “For desired conclusions,” he writes, “it is as if we ask ourselves ‘Can I believe this?’, but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, ‘Must I believe this?’” People come to some information seeking permission to believe, and to other information looking for escape routes.
In 1877, the philosopher William Kingdon Clifford wrote an essay titled “The Ethics of Belief,” in which he argued: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”
Lee McIntyre takes a similarly moralistic tone in his 2015 book Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age: “The real enemy of truth is not ignorance, doubt, or even disbelief,” he writes. “It is false knowledge.”
Whether it’s unethical or not is kind of beside the point, because people are going to be wrong and they’re going to believe things on insufficient evidence. And their understandings of the things they believe are often going to be incomplete—even if they’re correct. How many people who (rightly) believe climate change is real could actually explain how it works? And as the philosopher  and psychologist William James noted in an address rebutting Clifford’s essay, religious faith is one domain that, by definition, requires a person to believe without proof.
Still, all manner of falsehoods—conspiracy theories, hoaxes, propaganda, and plain old mistakes—do pose a threat to truth when they spread like fungus through communities and take root in people’s minds. But the inherent contradiction of false knowledge is that only those on the outside can tell that it’s false. It’s hard for facts to fight it because to the person who holds it, it feels like truth.
At first glance, it’s hard to see why evolution would have let humans stay resistant to facts. “You don’t want to be a denialist and say, ‘Oh, that’s not a tiger, why should I believe that’s a tiger?’ because you could get eaten,” says McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University.
But from an evolutionary perspective, there are more important things than truth. Take the same scenario McIntyre mentioned and flip it on its head—you hear a growl in the bushes that sounds remarkably tiger-like. The safest thing to do is
probably high-tail it out of there, even if it turns out it was just your buddy messing with you. Survival is more important than truth.
And of course, truth gets more complicated when it’s a matter of more than just “Am I about to be eaten or not?” As Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis points out in his forthcoming book The Most Natural Thing: How Evolution Explains Human Societies: “The natural environment of human beings, like the sea for dolphins or the ice for polar bears, is information provided by others, without which they could not forage, hunt, choose mates, or build tools. Without communication, no survival for
humans.”
In this environment, people with good information are valued. But expertise comes at a cost—it requires time and work. If you can get people to believe you’re a good source without actually being one, you get the benefits without having to put in the work. Liars prosper, in other words, if people believe them. So some researchers have suggested motivated reasoning may have developed as a “shield against manipulation.” A tendency to stick with what they already believe could help protect people from being taken in by every huckster with a convincing tale who comes along.
“This kind of arms-race between deception and detection is common in nature,” Boyer writes.
Spreading a tall tale also gives people something even more important than false expertise—it lets them know who’s on their side