The article excerpt below explains so much. I’ve heard of this kind of research, but it’s always nice to see further confirmation.
The problem with irrational beliefs isn’t a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of respect for knowledge. What a liberal education offers is teaching the young the importance of critical thinking skills. And if not taught at a very young age, a person is unlikely to ever learn these skills and values. It’s very dangerous to allow any particular dogmatic ideology to control or limit education (and this is particularly true for non-rational ideologies such as espoused by fundamentalists).
Society, at present, has several problems in this regard. Liberal education has gone out of favor and critical thinking skills aren’t seen as having practical value in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. To the degree that critical thinking is valued, it is extremely compartmentalized in particular fields rather than being the overall basis of public debate. For these reasons, the average person has both limited ability to think critically and limited respect towards this ability.
Although the article doesn’t mention it, I would add that this issue relates to moral development. The ability to think critically isn’t merely a cultural value. Rather, it’s a specific stage of development that any intelligent human will develop towards if given the opportunity (and the encouragement). Morality is related to the ability to think abstractly and to think outside of the constraints of subjective experience. Morality and intellectuality are co-dependent factors in human development. So, when a child has their intellectual potential stunted by ideology and lack of liberal education, their moral ability also becomes stunted at a lower stage of development.
All Evidence to the Contrary
In a recently published study, a group of researchers from Northwestern University, UNC Chapel HIll, SUNY Buffalo and Millsaps College found that people often employ an approach the researchers called “motivated reasoning” when sorting through new information or arguments, especially on controversial issues. Motivated reasoning is, as UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman put it, the equivalent of policy-driven data, instead of data-driven policy.
In other words, if people start with a particular opinion or view on a subject, any counter-evidence can create “cognitive dissonance”–discomfort caused by the presence of two irreconcilable ideas in the mind at once. One way of resolving the dissonance would be to change or alter the originally held opinion. But the researchers found that many people instead choose to change the conflicting evidence–selectively seeking out information or arguments that support their position while arguing around or ignoring any opposing evidence, even if that means using questionable or contorted logic.
That’s not a news flash to anyone who’s paid attention to any recent national debate–although the researchers pointed out that this finding, itself, runs counter to the idea that the reason people continue to hold positions counter to all evidence is because of misinformation or lack of access to the correct data. Even when presented with compelling, factual data from sources they trusted, many of the subjects still found ways to dismiss it. But the most interesting (or disturbing) aspect of the Northwestern study was the finding that providing additional counter-evidence, facts, or arguments actually intensified this reaction. Additional countering data, it seems, increases the cognitive dissonance, and therefore the need for subjects to alleviate that discomfort by retreating into more rigidly selective hearing and entrenched positions.
Needless to say, these findings do not bode well for anyone with hopes of changing anyone else’s mind with facts or rational discussion, especially on “hot button” issues. But why do we cling so fiercely to positions when they don’t even involve us directly? Why do we care who got to the North Pole first? Or whether a particular bill has provision X versus provision Y in it? Why don’t we care more about simply finding out the truth–especially in cases where one “right” answer actually exists?
Part of the reason, according to Kleiman, is “the brute fact that people identify their opinions with themselves; to admit having been wrong is to have lost the argument, and (as Vince Lombardi said), every time you lose, you die a little.” And, he adds, “there is no more destructive force in human affairs–not greed, not hatred–than the desire to have been right.”
So, what do we do about that? If overcoming “the desire to have been right” is half as challenging as overcoming hate or greed, the outlook doesn’t seem promising. But Kleiman, who specializes in crime control policy and alternative solutions to very sticky problems (his latest book is “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment”), thinks all is not lost. He points to the philosopher Karl Popper, who, he says, believed fiercely in the discipline and teaching of critical thinking, because “it allows us to offer up our opinions as a sacrifice, so that they die in our stead.”
A liberal education, Kleiman says, “ought, above all, to be an education in non-attachment to one’s current opinions. I would define a true intellectual as one who cares terribly about being right, and not at all about having been right.”
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If you’d like to see this issue discussed from a different angle, read this earlier post of mine: