Re: All Evidence to the Contrary

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
Lane Wallace
The Atlantic
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:

Normality and Rationality

I was thinking about two issues of how people respond to that which is conventionally thought of being outside of the “normal”.


The first issue I’ve thought about many times before as it comes up in the literature of UFOs and the paranormal.  I was skimming through some books by the likes of John Keel, Patrick Harpur and Keith Thompson.  These books confirmed the data I’d seen for myself in public polls.  Simply put, the vast majority of people believe in or have experienced something that seemed to defy a rationalistic, materialistic worldview.  Most people have had at least one strange experience in their life.  Many people have had multiple strange experiences in their life.  However, skeptics and debunkers (whether atheists, scientists, media reporters, or government officials) treat the paranormal as if it were abnormal.  Furthermore, it is treated as if belief or simply acceptance of it might be dangerous for society.

I was thinking about an interview between Dawkins and Radin.  Dawkins told Radin that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  Radin pointed out that it depends on what one considers extraordinary.  Dawkins was trying to dismiss from the start experiences that were common to most people.  There is a further problem with Dawkin’s statement.  Parapsychology gets very little funding and so is unable to do the largescale research that is necessary to produce “extraordinary” evidence, but its mainstream scientists such as Dawkins who argue that parapsychology doesn’t deserve funding because it doesn’t produce “extraordinary” evidence.  So, Dawkins’ statement is disingenuous because he really doesn’t want parapsychology to produce extraordinary evidence.  Still, a surprising amount of parapychology research has been done considering the factors of ridicule and limited funding.  Radin even offered to discuss the actual evidence and Dawkins refused.  So, Dawkins represents the rational scientist who precludes certain evidence by coming to a conclusion before even looking at the evidence (if they ever look at the evidence).

It reminds me of CSICOP, the skeptical organization by various mainstream scientists (incuding Dawkins).  The problem with CSICOP is that it isn’t headed by scientists and the scientists who support it have no professional experience with parapsychology research.  CSICOP has no peer-reviewed journal and doesn’t support research even in disproving the paranormal.  Hansen says that CSICOP did do some research early on, but it ended up proving what they were trying to disprove and so they never did research again.  Worse still, they use their influence (via mainstream scientists) to keep parapsychologists from getting funding.

Another example would be the military.  The Air Force had some programs to collect data on UFOs, but the public side of these programs was to debunk.  The main issue wasn’t necessarily to discover whether such things existed or not.  The Air Force had plenty of data to know that there indeed were unidentified objects “flying” in unexplainable ways.  Their own pilots were constantly reporting these things.  The reason debunking was necessary is because of a need to control.  If UFOs were either enemy experimental craft, aliens, or strange paranormal phenomena, the Air Force doesn’t like anything to exist in their airspace that they don’t control.  And if they can’t control the objects, they must control the information about them.  They must put up an image of always being in absolute control. 

George P. Hansen, in his book The Trickster and the Paranormal, goes into great detail about this need for authority figures to control and how the paranormal seems inherently contrary to such control.  Hansen goes into immense detail about the problems parapychology researchers have had trying to study something that can’t be confined to the boundaries of research.  Another interesting point he brings up is the issue of personality types.  According to Ernest Hartmann, thin boundary types are more likely to experience the paranormal and more likely to be open and accepting about such experiences, and thick boundary types are the complete opposite.  Most people are somewhere in the middle as I was pointing out how most people have had paranormal experiences at some point in their life.  An extremely thick boundaried person is a minority, but very interesting is the fact that they’re more likely to be hired for positions of authority in hierarchical organizations (government, military, education, corporations, etc.).  So, authority figures don’t end up representing the actual experience of most people.  Someone like Dawkins is being honest in that he has never experienced the paranormal (or at least has always managed to explain it away), and so it makes no sense to his worldview.  The other problem with thick boundaried people is that they have a harder time imagining the experience of someone than someone different than them.  So, not only do most authority figures not represent the experience of most people neither do they understand.

However, why do most people remain silent about their experiences?  There is the possibility that most people take other people’s silence as demonstrating that their experience is uncommon.  Everyone is afraid of being the first one to bring the subject up because that would mean risking ridicule.  However, I believe it was Patrick Harpur who offered another possibility.  Paranormal experiences aren’t even easy to explain to ourselves.  Like spiritual experiences in general, the paranormal commands a sense of awe and even reverence.  People feel something important happened that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  So, maybe people don’t talk about them because trying to explain them would seem pointless and unecessary.  But many people when asked without fear of ricicule are willing to admit to their experiences, and that is why we know from polls that such experiences are so common.


The second issue is about how people talk about things that are outside the “norm”.  This is mostly an issue of Western civilization, but increasingly it probably applies to other cultures as well.  When talking about the non-rational people feel a need to make sense of it rationally.  I’ve thought about this less than the first issue and so I have less to say about it.  I became aware of it listening to an interview on NPR.  The person being interviewed was an expert on behavior that is so far outside the norm as to be called “evil”.  He was discussing it in rational terms of psychology and historical events, but its a subject that touches upon the metaphysical and the just plain inexplicable. 

It’s hard for most people to wrap their minds around what makes other “normal” people do horrible things such as Nazi medical doctors.  And it’s even hard to come to terms with mass murderers who are usually motivated by mental illnesses few of us ever have to experience.  At least, a Nazi doctor was following orders.  Simple self-preservation can explain following orders no matter how grotesque.  But this expert pointed out that the people who did the actual killing of Jews were often given the choice of whether to participate or not. 

I was watching a documentary recently about the part of WWII involving Russia and Germany.  These were two totalitarian superpowers who were willing to go to any length for victory.  All morality and social order was gone.  The actions taken on enemy soldiers and just innocent civilians was at least as horrifying as any of the Nazi death camps.  It was all out thuggery and brutality.  It didn’t surprise me that the people involved were so-called “normal” people.  During what is called the partisan war, there was a lot of torture and random killings and most of it was not done because of any orders given.  They were typically just local people doing horrible things to other local people, often to those they were friends and neighbors with before the war.  One guy who terrorized a particular town used to be the teacher for that town and before the war he showed no signs of being vicious.  That is disturbing but other wars have shown that repeatedly that your neighbors may one day turn on you and do horrible things beyond imagination.  This potential is within every person.  Even psychological research shows how easily people turn to brutality.  What is called “civilization” is a thin veneer. 

What is surprising is that the people interviewed who were involved in the atrocities from WWII were mostly unrepentant and said they’d do it all over again.  These people were now old, possibly grandparents and great grandparents now.  But given another opportunity they’d gladly torture their neighbors all over again.  “War is war” seemed to be the rationalization.  Nothing else mattered but kill or be killed.  These were just “normal” people.  It’s hard for Americans in particular to understand this attitude.  Unlike Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, America idealizes morality and civil rights even though we don’t always live up to those ideals.  Of course our soldiers have done horrible things as well, but we tend to look down on this type of behavior.  The US soldiers involved in the recent torture incidents are mostly repentant when interviewed.  They act as confused by their own behavior as the rest of us.  They explain it as following orders.  We all can understand that and we sadly nod our heads.  But guerilla warfare is a different entity, something more close to the behavior of serial killers.  Americans haven’t personally experience guerilla warfare since the Civil War.  The atrocities of war are what happen elsewhere… well, until 9/11 that is.

Anways, the callers from the NPR interview were mostly Americans I suppose.  And so maybe my observation applies more to Americans.  The majority of callers seemed only indirectly interested in the “evil” behavior itself.  Instead, they took issue with how “evil” was defined.  Everyone had their own definition.  It seemed extremely important that we get our definitions precisely correct and that everyone should come to a rational agreement about how we discusst it.  The process of discussing was almost more important than the subject.  Maybe it’s because these behaviors are so challenging to our normal understanding.  It’s almost as if the right definition could be found then it wold all somehow make sense, somehow seem less threatening.  We moderns define ideas and terms in the way that Christian theologians in the past categorized sins and demons.  If things are in their proper place, at least there is a sense of there being an order to the world.  It doesn’t stop the “evil”, but it turns it into an object that can be safely studied.

The Love of Truth vs. the Sophistry of Apologetics

A major reason I blog now is because apologists annoy me.  I used to post on discussion boards, but the discussions tend to get dragged down to the lowest common denominator. 

Apologists are annoying in that they can often be anti-intellectual, but not always.  Sometimes they’re quite intellectually capable even when their focus is very narrow.  It can even take a while to realize you’re dealing with an apologist because many believers prefer to not express their beliefs openly.  That is even more annoying because I can sense that the person is filtering everything they think, but it takes effort to realize they’re not actually open to new viewpoints.  The most intelligent apologists have a knack for creating convoluted arguments and false herrrings. 

What is even worse is when they demand you defend your argument when they can’t defend their own.  I’ve spent years studying religion, and it’s a complex field.  Why would I want to deal with people who’ve only read very narrowly?  Why would want to try to spoonfeed information to those who have no respect for knowledge?  And apologists can be persistent, going around and around with the same tired ploys.

Beyond all of that, what really annoys me is that apologists are very talented at perverting the truth.  To me, truth is my faith.  When someone uses rational logic falsely or deceptively, then it pisses me off.  I just don’t understand how someone can act rationally while at the same time having little respect for rationality.

I’m not criticizing faith.  I’m all for faith, but faith and rationality are not the same thing.  Rationality limited by unquestioned beliefs is not rational at all.  Certainly, it’s acceptable for one’s faith to inform one’s rationality, but one is no longer in the realm of rationality when one’s rationality is limited to one’s faith.  As such, rationality should also inform one’s faith.  No belief should be held back from the gaze of curiosity, questioning, doubt and general intellectual inquiry.  Also, I’d even go so far to say that faith without doubt is no faith at all.

Apologetics has been a major component of our society for centuries that so much of our culture has been limited to the context of Christian assumptions.  It’s so subtle that we usually don’t even notice it. 

A simple example is a reference work such as a dictionary.  I have a Sharp electronic dictionary that uses the New Oxford American Dictionary.  It doesn’t have entries for Basilides, Valentinius, or Marcion.  These three were the earliest Christians to write commentaries on New Testament scriptures.  All of them had all or most of their works destroyed by later Christians, and the latter two were labelled heretics some decades after they left the Catholic Church.  On the other hand, there are entries for all of the later apologists and heresiologists.  Irenaeus has an entry and he was the very one who called Marcion and Valentinius heretics.

So, why is a mainstream scholarly dictionary limiting the information shown to the public according to the decrees of Catholic orthodoxy?  How did the Catholic Church gain such influence over secular scholarship?  Why would a scholar choose to follow Church orthodoxy?  Was there a Christian majority in the committee that decided what made it into the dictionary?

This is the same with all other references.  When you do an internet search about Christianity, some of the best sources of info get buried beneath the numerous apologetic sites.  When you go to Wikipedia, many of the articles have very clear religious biases.

Here are some discussions with and articles about apologists: