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Grant McDermott

Data. Economics. Environment.

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I should really be studying... but my attention has been drawn to several articles and interviews over the last few weeks that coincide with a recurring theme here at Stickman's Corral: The tendency of beliefs to trump facts, and a priori biases to cloud objective decision-making.

For instance, the below radio interview discusses new research on the problem of "backfire". As the name suggests, this is the phenomenon whereby facts don't necessarily have the power to change people's minds... Indeed, quite the opposite, as people actually tend to cling to their beliefs more strongly when presented with opposing evidence!


A related article on the same research can be found here:
The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.
Similarly, this article discusses the problems of the "Enlightenment Model", which
holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. All that has to be done to persuade people is to lay out the data: they will then use it to decide which options best support their interests and desires.
A host of psychological experiments demonstrates that it doesn’t work like this. Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.
Regular readers will know that I've been trying to make a similar point on this blog for a while (e.g. herehere and here).  Stickman's Corral tries to abide by the relaxed principles of El Duderino and this approach was motivated by the realisation that: a) Making purely unequivocal statements is a one-way ticket to intellectual stagnation, and b) The fear of embarrassment or being wrong is among the most powerful motivators out there. If you don't offer people a way out that preserves their sense of dignity, you don't really offer them anything all. I'm always taken aback by how many people don't seem to grasp this simple rule of human behaviour. Or, as I've said several times now: Calling someone an "idiot" is not the best way to convince them of your position.

Of course, being respectful hardly implies that you should have to withold your opinion. I take numerous angles on this blog that I feel are pretty clearly laid out and I abhor false equivalences. Being open to changing your mind is a fundamental intellectual requirement, but there are many issues where I think the evidence is simply too compelling for any reasonable person not to embrace a particular side. It really grates me to see how tautological the defensive arguments against, say, evolution and climate change are. The first of these is well documented, but the latter typically goes something like this: 

Knee-jerk Sceptic: There is no scientific consensus about humans causing climate change.
Response: Well, actually every major survey shows that over 95% of practising climate researchers support this mainstream view...
Knee-jerk Sceptic: Those studies are flawed. [Or: Those mainstream scientists are wrong and the minority who disagree and are correct and have simply been marginalised.]
Response: Come on, that's a real stretch. The dissenting research simply doesn't hold up to scientific evidence and peer-reviewed scrutiny... 
Knee-jerk Sceptic: The peer review process has been corrupted. We can't trust it any more as opposing views have been silenced. Just look at the "Climategate" emails.
Response: Well, actually, the whole thing was blown ridiculously out of proportion and three independent reviews have cleared the involved parties of any significant scientific malpractice. 
Knee-jerk Sceptic: The reviews were just a sham and a cover up.
Response: Seriously? Okay, how about the fact that independent media analyses have come to a similar conclusion and even sceptics have offered compelling reasons not to put stock into the conspiracy theories...
Knee-jerk Sceptic: I don't care about those reviews; they aren't official. And there is a conspiracy: The governments of the world want to institute a new communist world order by imposing a huge carbon tax so to regulate the free peoples of the world.
Response: That is ridiculous. The amount of money spent on fighting climate change pales in comparison to money spent on, say, oil exploration and research. Even if it didn't, why do you suppose governments would sabotage their own economies by potentially depriving themselves of "cheaper" fuel? Think about it: They can't even agree to binding emissions targets!
Knee-jerk Sceptic: Governments are just fighting it out to see who gets greatest share of the pie.
Response: Look, scientists working separately all over the world have arrived at the same basic hypothesis that CO2 is the most likely culprit behind the observed warming of the last 150 years. Yes, there is uncertainty, but that should call for more caution if anything. More to the point, putting a price on carbon is ultimately about saving us money, since it corrects  for the negative costs that climate change is likely to entail.
Knee-jerk Sceptic: Scientists/Economists are part of the global conspiracy.

Etcetera, etcetera...
Sealed argument, much?

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Facts are important, but you have to play - and be sensitive - to peoples' emotions and values if you really want to win hearts and minds.