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Yeah, Well, You Can Prove Anything With Facts

July 23, 2010

Ever since writing my thesis, one topic I am simply unable to put to rest is the divergence of public opinion and fact. Not that I’m the first to address the topic or observe the phenomenon. Nietzsche had long ago realized that rationality is not always the most persuasive “tool” of thought. As such, Nietzsche famously laid waste to the elaborate systems of thought (embodied by Kantian thought) and idealistic castles in the sky because he sought to expose their bare foundations. Nietzsche knew that such attacks were the end-point of rationality, whether he was the one to make the attacks or not. Nietzsche famously foretold of the abyss that would remain after such systems were destroyed: “God is dead. And we have killed him.” At a certain point, even rationality requires an irreducible and obstinate form of faith.

Despite the bleak outlook, Nietzsche sought to instill in us a sense that we can–and must–act as men without having some fallible and manipulable system as an authority that always provides an answer of what is right. Nietzsche knew that rationality wasn’t always the tool that was most convincing; anger, love, faith, and other instincts, and most often not rationality, compelled fallible humans to take action in the world. Of course, that attitude is cold comfort for someone who sees value in readily ascertainable facts, and believes that the true nature of reality can and should be used to guide our decisions at a primary level.

As is often the case when it comes to the most profound and oracular philosophers, there is now some empirical proof to verify their ruminations on human nature, and Nietzsche’s pronouncement on the death of faith in rationality and other such “castles in the sky” is bolstered with some psychological studies:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

As I had pointed out in my thesis, American journalists are usually very afraid of losing their access to the subjects they report on. So whether or not they are required to do so by their source, they implicitly or explicitly agree to couch and qualify and limit the terms used in their reports, which divorces their writing from the truth and subjects the final product to censorship by the person in control. Glenn Greenwald points out that manipulation of the policy debate can be mitigated by using unabashedly accurate language (like the word torture), but when a journalist’s goal is to serve an audience’s preferences rather than truth, the problem approaches a singularity of relativism. Indeed, whether or not the intentional act of misinformation is even necessary is questionable in today’s media landscape, given the way humans judge policy outcomes:

Lixing Sun, a professor of biology at Central Washington University, thinks we have a “fairness instinct.” And he may be right. He maintains that high on the roster of human propensities is a “Robin Hood mentality” that characterizes our species and qualifies as one of those “mental modules” that evolutionary psychologists consider part of our likely biological inheritance.

In a much-noted laboratory experiment several years ago, described in the report “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay,” the primatologists Sarah F. Brosnan and Frans B.M. de Waal trained capuchin monkeys to perform a certain task for which they received cucumber slices. The monkeys performed just fine, until they were permitted to see others being rewarded with grapes, a higher-value payment. Previously acquiescent, many of the cucumber-receivers promptly stopped participating, sometimes even throwing those measly, unfair cucumber payments out of their cage. Aversion of that sort is well established among Homo sapiens as well—even though, at first blush, it appears irrational and, thus, paradigm-busting for economists trained in the Homo economicus model whereby people are considered to be “rational and utility-maximizing” creatures. Behavioral economists call it “inequity aversion”—the tendency to turn down a perfectly good offer if others are getting a better deal.

That social species like primates have a more innate sense of “fairness” should make sense to the average reader, regardless of how much rationalizing and philosophizing one chooses to overlay on top of one’s internal instincts. The important point is that there is an additional act there, one that many–if not most–Americans at least implicitly consider superfluous. After all, their innate fairness instincts provide them a default position, so why “waste” conscious brainpower actually analyzing the consequences of raw instinct? That’s mental energy that could be spent watching TV!

Of course, I don’t think that one’s gut instinct is where any inquiry can reasonably end. Emotions and instincts are easily malleable through the use of manipulative imagery and the shrouding of reality behind smokescreens and soundbites. However, the threat to the ecosystem of the marketplace of ideas is not so simply rectified by providing more reliable information for people to analyze and come to better conclusions. The problem is far too culturally, and perhaps biologically, deep-seated to allow for a mere symptomatic fix. A horrifyingly pervasive memetic attitude is “yeah, well, you can prove anything with science.”

[English researchers] took two groups of people, one in favour of the death penalty, the other against it, and then presented each with a piece of scientific evidence that supported their pre-existing view, and a piece that challenged it. Murder rates went up, or down, for example, after the abolition of capital punishment in a state, or comparing neighbouring states, and the results were as you might imagine. Each group found extensive methodological holes in the evidence they disagreed with, but ignored the very same holes in the evidence that reinforced their views.

Some people go even further than this, when presented with unwelcome data, and decide that science itself is broken.

These attitudes to the viability of science and research are cultural conditions, instilled by debates constantly cast in terms of “two sides,” implying that there is a rationale supporting each. This implicit statement of support in turn legitimates any position that casts itself as merely an alternative which can be adopted consistently with reality, and can only be realistically distinguished on the basis of the aforementioned instincts.

Just think of how doubt has been cast on the existence of global warming, intelligent design, WMDs, etc. Then think of what role instinct should properly have in resolving any of those questions. Then think of how and why people vote. Then head for the hills with me.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Elliott Ash permalink
    July 23, 2010 5:57 pm

    Hey Rick, keep up the good work. You will probably like this article on agnotology — the study of cultural induction of ignorance:


    Ignorant tribalism is not a force to be dismissed lightly. In day-to-day politics, the absence of any coherent position or relationship to reality is not a big disadvantage, while a machine capable of disseminating talking points is a big asset.

    On the other hand, there are some significant long run costs associated with the embrace of ignorance. Science has been the central engine of human progress over the past century or more and anti-science political movements have rarely prospered for long. The average voter has not yet recognised the fact that the political right is now vehemently opposed to science and scientists. But both scientists and their rightwing enemies are well aware of the fact…

    Conversely, scientists are now as reliably hostile to the Republican party as African-Americans (a total of 6 per cent, according to this poll) When the general image of the political right catches up with this reality, the costs are likely to be severe.


  1. Aw, the Humanity « The New Print

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