2015

18 March 2015: Truth vs. tribal mentality

Truth v. tribal mentality

An intellectual practice gaining strength in America is the idea that when facts don’t fit one’s belief constructs it’s permissible to deny facts that dispel such held beliefs.  Bright and respectable people, for example, blithely…

  • deny global warming/climate change is not only dramatically occurring, but is also the result of human behavior.
  • insist that while vaccinations might prevent spreadable diseases such as measles, they also cause autism and other disorders.
  • hold onto the superstition that while fluoridation of our water supply might harden tooth enamel, it does so at the expense of creating mushy minds.  They don’t understand that’s the job of talk radio and cable “news.”

I suppose somewhere in that parallel universe there is incontrovertible evidence of angels dancing on pinheads, tooth fairies, and the Great Pumpkin.

There’s a chasm between skepticism and denial.  A rational person approaches non-evident claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Denial, on the other hand, is an emotional process that takes place in the face of evidence to the contrary.  Denial emanates from fear, which is our most powerful motivator.

In a piece in the Washington Post, science reporter Joel Achenbach states, “Even when we intellectually accept precepts of science, we subconsciously cling to our intuitions — what researchers call our naive beliefs.”

Achenbach references a study by study by Andrew Shtulman of Occidental College that gives evidence that even science students hesitate when responding to an obvious fact such as the earth going around the sun.

“Shtulman’s research indicates,” writes Achenbach, “that as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely. They nest in our brains, chirping at us as we try to make sense of the world.”

While that makes a for a fun factoid, it also results in frustration when one is conversing about a social/political issue and the other resorts to non-empirical statements that hold no basis for truth as his/her evidence.  All one can do is to roll his/her eyes, shrug shoulders, and say, “Well, okay then,” which in turn results in even more dysfunctional public discourse since we cannot agree on facts.

Achenbach cites Yale professor Dan Kahan who says people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce their worldviews. Kahan sees Americans falling into two basic camps: “egalitarian/communitarian” or “hierarchical/individualistic,” which politically can be classified as liberal v. conservative. Liberals are more likely to accept the notion of human-caused climate change while conservatives are more likely going to deny it.

The reality is we moderns exist in a dichotomy that holds there are two distinct ways to look at the world and universe—faith or reason—which translates into religion and science.  Most don’t see them in opposition and combine them, albeit with a bent more in one direction than the other.  A strong minority, though, holds to one extreme or the other: fundamentalists vs. total rationalists.

Marcia McNutt, editor of the prestigious journal Science, told Achenbach, “Science is not a body of facts.  Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”

As Achenbach points out, “Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge,” and it’s that “uncertainty” with which many have difficulty.

In his essay “An Absurd Reasoning,” the great 20th-century philosopher Albert Camus writes, “The mind’s deepest desire, its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity.”

Science, however, does not give hard-fast absolutism and as such the “nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute illustrates the essential impulse of the human drama.”

The truth is there is no truth and that scares the hell out of many.  It also puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the actors—humans—which, in turn, leads to judgment in the cosmic good v. evil for overly religious types.

“It’s [scientists’] very detachment, what you might call the cold-bloodedness of science, that makes science the killer app,” writes Achenbach.  “It’s the way science tells us the truth rather than what we’d like the truth to be.”

Scientists can be dogmatic, says Achenbach, “but their dogma is always wilting in the hot glare of new research. In science it’s not a sin to change your mind when the evidence demands it. For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.”

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