[This is the final section of the book. I will return to the section on neurobiology and religion later.]
The backfire effect
If science is to be communicated to the wider community in a way that will change how people think, then it would seem an obvious idea to look at the actual science of communication itself. A type of psychological research is into motivated reasoning, which seeks to understand how it is that people respond to challenges to their beliefs, and it has some surprising and counterintuitive results for us here.
When people are reasoning about things they are motivated strongly to defend, it turns out that evidence to the contrary will typically not reduce their confidence in these beliefs, but in fact cause them to strengthen their beliefs against the evidence. This is known as the “backfire effect”. This is why when conspiracy theorists are presented with strong evidence that, yes, the 9/11 terrorists did cause the collapse of the World Trade Centre, they double down and respond that the counter evidence is itself part of the conspiracy to hide the government’s involvement. It is why when study after study shows that vaccines do not cause autism, or that humans are causing global warming, those who are motivated to defend these ideas increase, rather than decrease, their certitude in those claims. It is why, when no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq or connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda shown to exist, supporters of the Bush administration still think that Bush was right to invade and there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. As philosopher Jonathon Haidt noted (2001),
Research in social cognition also indicates that people often behave like “intuitive lawyers” rather than “intuitive scientists”
who argue in favour of their previously-chosen position rather than investigating it to find out what is right.
It cannot be that people will never change their minds, so what is going on? The theory of motivated reasoning suggests that the function of reasoning is not to find the truth, but to give reasons for what it is that we otherwise want to believe (Mooney 2011). It implies that what really matters is how people feel about beliefs, not what they critically think. In short, the rationalist is wrong. That is, they are wrong about why people use reason, not about the importance of good reasoning.
A recent paper by Mercier and Sperber (2010) argues that the “function” (I always air quote the word function, because there are a multitude of functions for anything, and which one you are most interested in tells the hearer more about you than about the thing you are talking about) of reason is to convince people, not to find the right things to believe. In short, the rhetorical aspect of reasoning is what we first evolved to employ, not the rational and logical aspect.
This must affect how we communicate science to the wider community, and how the community receives that message. Let me use an analogy: suppose you have a criminal element in your neighbourhood. You seek to remove or otherwise deal with that criminal element, so you enact through your local legislative body some harsh anticrime laws. You might expect that crime would drop, but instead it rises, and the criminal acts become more violent and extreme. It turns out that “law and order” campaigns are counterproductive, because all they do it strengthen the motivations of both law and crime doers. It effectively ramps up the tension and hence the violence (Beckett 1999). This is sometimes called the Untouchables Effect:
Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! [The Untouchables, 1987]
Now the reasonable response would be to remove the tension and deflate the intensity of the game, for example by disarming the police so that the criminals no longer need to carry weapons. Instead, our tendency is to up the ante each time, ramping up the cost of the game until it becomes very serious indeed, and a kind of war breaks out between gangs and the police. It would also be reasonable to address the underlying social reasons for crime, such as a lack of access to basic resources and fair treatment, but again, in law and order arms races, the exact opposite happens.
This is exactly analogous to the ways in which those who are proscience and those who are anti-science, whether for religious or other reasons, behave. Instead of taking a slow, measured and agreeable approach, our initial tendency is to confront aggressively, and the outcome is not that one side or the other gives way in the face of force majeure but that they both entrench themselves in increasingly malign positions. That is the Chicago way.
This leads to a tragedy of the commons. Each individual actor in this struggle seeks to maximise their own return on cognitive investment (and the reasons have to do with social status), but when all act this way, we end up with a highly polarised negative-sum outcome. Everybody loses when science and political and religious motives are at odds. We end up with anti-science becoming a test of moral purity in some quarters, and thus we stop vaccinating, dealing with the environment, and going into space. A reasonable mind would see this as a problem to be solved, not a mere fact of life.
When communicating to somebody, it is obvious that we must take the audience with us, rather than force feed them at a speed they cannot absorb, and when the audience has prior expectations that run counter to the message, you must gently deconstruct those expectations. Otherwise, you end up reinforcing the motivated reasoning that got you into this mess.
Science communication is not, I believe, the solution to our anti-science social problem. This has to do with the nature of mass media, rather than any failings of science communicators, so let me discuss this a little.
Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and then failed to give that any real definition or sense. Here is my take on it. Broadcast media, meaning any kind of “publishing abroad”, as they used to call it, where something is written, said or done once, and then sent to many readers or viewers simultaneously, as a medium has some limitations. Since the audience is targeted at the lowest common denominator for the size of audience that is sought, it follows that broadcast media are generally quite information poor. This is equally if not more true of the internet media. A common tag is “tl;dr” – “too long; didn’t read”. Quite apart from the (questionable) claim that reading on a screen is less effective than reading on a physical copy, there is simply so much on the internet that if you want a large audience, you have to make the material bite-size and straightforward.
Yet, there is a lot of content even if there is not much information in broadcast media, so what is it all doing? I believe it is doing one thing only: manipulating attitudes. Broadcast media makes you feel good or bad about things. So the best outcome of good science communication in broadcast media has to do with manipulating the attitudes of the readers and viewers to feel positively disposed towards science. And if you can make people feel good about it, you can make people feel bad about it, as the anti-vaccination and global warming “skeptics” demonstrate. The techniques of manipulation are the message, even when the topic is science.
So when we engage in public debate about science, we are either trying to manipulate attitudes, or we are shouting into the wind. And I think that it is not a virtue to manipulate anyone. Instead, you should express yourself so that a reasonable and honest hearer can follow where your argument leads, even if they end up not agreeing with you. Motivated reasoning is deflated when you treat people with respect and civility, or at least, more so than with any other technique of public debate. It is not infallible.
When motivated reasoning backfires, though, and civility fails, then the strategic issue moves from “convincing others about science” to “preventing others from blocking science and science education”. And this means that one need not be so civil (although I would suggest civility is always the right starting point). However, when we are considering advocacy roles, I do not see why those who are pro-science, even when they are religious believers, must be excluded from active engagement in science. Those who are anti-science may very well be treated in a hostile manner if civility fails, but why treat the pro-science religious believers that way?
So I think that the prohibitive advocacy form of non-accommodationism is a bad strategy, and that we should encourage rather than discourage the involvement of religious believers in science advocacy. And this is purely a political decision. There are few if any philosophical aspects to this: we know that religions that are not empirically testable are compatible with science, and we know that one can believe in scientific ideas and religious ideas when there is no conflict. Our decision to encourage the religious to advocate for science is about raising the knowledge temperature of a society so that decisions are made upon good rather than bad ideas.
Consequently, adopting the exclusionary view that some of the more extreme new atheists have advocated indirectly is counterproductive. If you exclude religious belief from inside the scientific arena, you will find this backfires, and makes science less, not more, influential in society, while at the same time setting up conditions in which anti-science becomes identified with religious belief. And given that religious belief in never going to disappear, this is just stupid behaviour.
Throughout this book I have argued for a kind of accommodationist perspective. Let me summarise it now.
It is my view that science and religion can be mutually consistent so long as it is religion that accommodates science, and not science that accommodates religion. It is also my view that religions have always done this to some extent. It is not my concern to suggest how this may be done, since that is for believers to decide. It will not be all that easy, but it can be done, so long as the religion manages to make their beliefs independent of empirical data.
I do not think that science and religion are at war, and in my historical survey, I find that what happens is that science battles science, with some sides being represented by religious figures and institutions. I note some exceptions to this, particularly with respect to the brain and the mind. Here, more than anywhere else, I think religion has trouble with science.
I argue that if we exclude religious believers from science advocacy, we run the risk of increasing the motivated reasoning that will exclude science from general social policy and the community, to our combined detriment.
Arguments against religion in science do not depend upon scientific arguments or evidence, as no such arguments of evidence against religion exist. Only by adopting a philosophical stance, such as the belief that religion must function like a scientific theory of explanation, or that the probabilities of science favour philosophical positions like atheism, can this be made out. When atheists argue against religion on scientific grounds, either they are arguing against empirically sensitive beliefs, which ought to be science in any case, or they are arguing in a philosophical, and thus unscientific, manner. I don’t mean by this that their conclusions are unscientific, but that the arguments are. They aren’t scientific arguments, but rather they are philosophical arguments that use science as the context in which they are delivered.
Science is neither atheistic nor religious. It is neither an apology for a socioeconomic status quo, nor an argument for a revolution. Consider the scientific claim that global warming is human-caused. This, if established (and I think that it has been established), doesn’t give us a course of action. For that to be derived, we also need the ethical value that we should avoid global warming because of its consequences for us and the environment. This ethical value is not itself scientific. It is a philosophical value.
While some like Dawkins may argue that science makes religion ridiculous, or like Stenger that it shows that it is false, this is neither the implication of science alone, nor is it historically sustainable. What is being argued for in such cases is not science as such, but atheism or positivism. This is of course fine, and within the rights of those who argue, but it is misleading to call this arguing for science. These are philosophical arguments for a philosophical position regarding science. And to say they are implied by science is disingenuous and at best bad philosophy.
On the other hand, the attempts by religious writers to claim science for themselves is equally disingenuous. Ranging from the complete disavowal of any and all science that does not match the prior conclusions drawn (often with great straining) from scripture, to the surreptitious view that a certain philosophical reading of science will support some religious metaphysics, this is the abuse of reason and science. Science doesn’t support Buddhism, nor does it support Christianity, nor the Kabbalah, nor any other fashionable religious view.
A more sophisticated attack upon the philosophical autonomy of science is that of Alvin Plantinga and others, who argue that there is a special kind of science where human reason is subjugated to religion, and so only that sort of science (Plantinga calls it “Augustinian” science) is acceptable to Christians. In this approach, one can use miraculous explanations in science when theology dictates it. I hope I don’t have to argue here against this. The onus is on the theist to justify in a secular context whatever they wish to do under the rubric of “science”; and in ways non- believers can accept, or else it isn’t science; it is theology and only theology. They can think whatever they wish to think as Christians; if it isn’t secular, it isn’t science. If they believe faith supervises reason, that is fine. Nobody else has to. And yet science works very well – just as well as for believers – in the absence of that belief, so perhaps that belief is of no consequence when doing science.
To return to the atheist critics of religion in science, the same argument applies to them. They may believe that faith is excluded by reason and science, and yet science works very well – just as well as for nonbelievers – in the absence of that belief too. In short, science is philosophically neutral.
And this is the take-home message of this book. Science isn’t religion or anti- religion. Religion isn’t science, nor is atheism. All these conceptual entities and social groups are what they are, and they aren’t science. Nothing useful is served by mixing them.
In the end, science matters because the more we know about the world we all inhabit, religious or not, the better we can make our way through it. If our society needs to include the religious in the scientific enterprise, then we should do that, so long, and only so long, as that does not cause science to become corrupted or the servant of social masters.
I have not been a friend to religion in this book; but neither have I been a friend to exclusivism. I haven’t tried to reconcile religion with science for the simple reason that I am not religious, and it is their duty, not mine, to do so. Nor have I tried to show that religion must be excluded from science, because it is my view that this is just wrong. Instead, I have argued for a principled accommodation of religion to science: believe whatever you like, but don’t believe that science is anything else but the best way to know the world around us.
Beckett, K. (1999). Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics. New York, Oxford University Press.
Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review 108: 814-834.
Mercier, H. and D. Sperber (2010). “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011.
Mooney, C. (2011). The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones.