4 May 2011: Seeing is not always believing – Motivational Reasoning

Seeing is not always believing

“So what’s this about ‘motivational reasoning,’” I asked Suzy Six Pack as she sank into the easy chair with her freshly brewed tea.

“Simply put, it’s the concept of people ignoring facts, oftentimes overwhelming evidence, and holding to preconceptions of an issue,” she explained. “In an in-depth article in ‘Mother Jones’ magazine, Chris Mooney explains how neuroscientists have discovered that some, primarily conservative-thinking individuals, apply ‘flight-or fight’ reaction to new information, even when not related to life-threatening situations.”

“The classic example is climate-change denial,” said Joe Soccer Dad. “In a piece in ‘Newsweek’ a few months back, Sharon Begley wrote about a technique called ‘fractional risk attribution,’ which gets at determining how many times an extreme event would have occurred if it weren’t for human impact. What they determined is, for example, the 2003 European heat wave was 75 percent attributable to human behavior.”

“Right,” said Suzy. “Begley uses the term ‘fingerprinting’ as a metaphor for determining who or what is behind this incredible climate shift.”

“Also,” added Joe, “the ‘High Country News’ ran satellite pictures of American coastal towns threatened by rising ocean levels, showing how much shoreline will disappear over the century. Those cities are currently spending millions of tax dollars to move major structures inland.”

“Sounds like the old George Strait song about selling ocean-front property in Arizona is becoming a reality,” I quipped.

“What’s frustrating,” said Joe “is that hard evidence fails to sway deniers, and ironically those who are sophisticated, well-educated, dig in their heels more deeply than those without advanced education. Mooney points out they’re as emotionally driven and biased, but use their skills to come up with counter-arguments, oftentimes cherry-picking data to bolster their claims.”

“They reject,” said Suzy, “as Mooney writes, ‘the validity of a scientific source because its conclusions contradict their deeply held views.’ Only one thing sways them.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Actually, it’s not what but who,” Suzy replied. “If the information comes from a business or religious leader who presents the issue in context of their non-scientific values, they might reconsider.”

“It comes down to conservatives tending to distrust science because it often upsets their faith-based, preconceived notions about the world and universe,” said Joe. “Liberals, on the other hand, because of their worldview and generally being open to new information, are far more willing to set aside invalid beliefs, although they can have their moments too.”

“Like when?” I asked.

“There are those,” Joe replied, “who hold to the discredited theory that vaccines cause autism. It’s been debunked, but their impassioned distrust of Big Pharma overtakes their critical thinking processes.”

“But,” interjected Suzy, “the key politically is that Democrats who hold discredited beliefs are rarely if ever elected while Republicans do it all the time. If a Republican is honest in the primary about the validity of climate change or the need to repeal or modify TABOR, he or she doesn’t make it past the first round. Same holds true for same-sex marriage, health care reform, you name it.”

“While members of both parties apply litmus tests to candidate,” said Joe, “in the Republican Party, they serve as a test of faith—hence, the acronym RINO.”

“I wrote a column a couple years ago,” I said, “about the rightwing-authoritarian complex. I explored how those on the Right see their entire world from a rigid perspective, while liberals tend to be comfortable with ambiguity, thus taking nuanced approaches to issues.”

“That takes work,” said Joe. “It’s much easier to snag a sound byte to support an already-held position than to do the heavy intellectual lifting called critical thinking.”

“Mooney quotes psychologist John Jost of New York University,” said Suzy, “who argues conservatives too often are ‘system justifiers,’ engaging in motivational reasoning to defend the status quo.”

“If only that were true,” I mused. “My concern is their desire to take us to a past when survival of the fittest, meanest, or most manipulative of the market reigned. They argue Americans seniors would be better off without Medicare, but it’s really about increasing health insurers’ profits.”

“True also with regard to taxes,” said Suzy. “Their knee-jerk anti-tax position is even beyond Reagan.”

“Social Darwinism,” said Joe, “which Merriam-Webster defines as socio-cultural advancement being the product of inter-group conflict and competition. Socially elite classes, those with wealth and power, possess biological superiority in the struggle for existence.”

“Some of us, I guess, are just born superior,” I sighed.

“Accumulation of wealth is their indicator,” said Suzy. “Ayn Rand meets John Calvin.”

“Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, sons of John Galt,” added Joe.

“So it seems,” I sighed again. “More tea?”

“Thanks, but we’ve had enough caffeine,” said Suzy as she and Joe rose to leave. “Too much stimulation.”

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