Last updated on 20 Feb 2014
Bishop Butler wrote in a sermon in 1729:
Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why, then, should we desire to be deceived? [Sermon 7]
It’s an interesting question. Why should we seek to be deceived about the consequences of our actions and the world? And yet, many people do. Current conservatives take it as a measure of ideological purity that climate change is either not real or something out of our control. They deny evolution. They deny the minuscule danger in marijuana and most drugs and ignore the major danger of tobacco and alcohol. What is going on here?
A long time ago I worked with a member of the Exclusive Brethren, a sect of the Plymouth Brethren, who are as fundamentalist as it is possible to be. I would try to talk to him about his beliefs, but he simply refused to engage. The Exclusive Brethren have withdrawn from all conversation with the secular world (which, in their view, includes all other Christians) except for business. I wondered at how a clearly intelligent person could believe what he believed, and then it hit me: he couldn’t speak to outsiders, because they just looked at him with their jaw open and shaking their head. His beliefs isolated him from those outside his community, and therefore, by implication, strengthened his involvement within the community. If you believe silly crap, then the only people you can talk to are those who have the same silly beliefs.
This might help explain why it is that no amount of reasoned argument with evidence can sway such folk. Think of this as a kind of investment: one spends a long period developing one’s beliefs and social connections. If you are challenged in your beliefs, you put at risk your social networks with those who use the silly beliefs you hold as a test of inclusion, and therefore risk your social connections. To start again will cost you time, effort and resources that could be better spent. It takes a real crisis of faith to be forced to reconsider these core beliefs. Few people will find themselves challenged when they are honest, costly and hard to fake signals of community inclusion.
In the case of climate denialism, or creationism, it is not the content or topic of the beliefs that matters, but the fact that in order to hold them and assert them, you have isolated yourself from the external community as a show of faith. To abandon them simply because they are false would cost too much. And so you face up to the cognitive dissonance and rationalise your beliefs and the facts that challenge them.
What does this mean for practical purposes? How do we counter these false beliefs? There is no simple answer. In the short term we can insist that our functional bureaucracies and social institutions do not give credence, but that will only harden those who deny the facts in their beliefs. At best it will slough off the fence sitters, and reduce the core denialists to a rump. That is one good thing, but we want people to face reality when it really matters. A better, but longer term solution is to insist that education teaches not the facts, but the methods by which we understand those facts, in order that people can develop their cognitive stances appropriately. This denies the next generation of denialists their replacements, until they become at best an extremely small minority. Education is the solution, which the denialists well understand. This is why we have objections to even discussing these “controversial” matters in schools, and why the denialists (whether of evolution, global warming, or whatever) continuously try to insert their agenda into public education. An uneducated community is more easily controlled and manipulated.
The development of beliefs is not merely a metaphor: it is a literal developmental process. Just as an organism that has been fed a nutrient poor diet will not fully recover as an adult even if their diet is improved, neither will a conceptually poor education be entirely overcome once someone has reached a reflective equilibrium in their beliefs. If contrary core beliefs cause a crisis in a person such that they do abandon their silly beliefs, they are just as likely to replace them with other silly beliefs rather than more educated and rational beliefs. So the answer in the long term is to ensure that we do not educate people into the wrong beliefs.
As I said (and as I have argued in my paper “Are creationists rational?”) simply teaching facts, which are themselves seen as competing belief claims by the believers, will not do. They are just a matter of competing authorities. I will prefer my authorities over yours, no matter how credible they are in objective terms. Instead, we need to give developing minds confidence in the facts, and the way to do this is to show that the methods used, by scientists and other disciplines, work. The way to do that is to have the students do the work themselves and see that they work. After all, of all the inbuilt heuristics we have, we believe our own experience over the reports and instruction of others. Give developing believers confined that the methods work, and they will have confidence in the results of those methods.
I believe, from my own experience, that it would be best to simply make children observers and experimenters, and ignore teaching to tests until they reach mid-adolescence. If they don’t have confidence by then in the propriety of science, it will no longer matter, but if they don’t have that confidence at all, no amount of science education will change the silly beliefs. Nor will science communication (which, being a form of journalism, is largely about the manipulation of attitudes than information impartation), nor campaigns of this or that kind. The silly belief-holder can rationalise these approaches as being the preaching of a competing (and therefore false) religion or ideology.
Finally, note that the real reasons people hold the beliefs they do is rarely due to careful consideration of the facts and arguments. This is a form of rationalisation, that which Marx correctly called “false consciousness”, and it is usually a matter of social function serving the interests of those who hold the reigns of power. Parenthetically, Marx’s own solution was just as much a false consciousness as that which he critiqued. If we want reasonable people holding true beliefs, because things will be what they will be and we will all be bitten in the arse eventually by reality, then the real solution is to make rational people who can find out and think for themselves.
I posted the following on PZ Miskatonic’s Pharyngula as a reply, which may clarify some of the things I have said here:
It wasn’t about the Plymouth Brethren as such. That was just how I came by the insight.
This is part of what I think of as the Developmentalist Hypothesis of Belief Formation (the capitals make it true). We do not just acquire our beliefs in one step, but accrue them as we develop into adults. There is a cost to this, and so to move someone from their core beliefs and values, you have to make it something that would outweigh the costs involved in acquiring and maintaining those beliefs.
Denialism has a strong function in making communities of those who hold a particular belief more cohesive. As such, one has to ask, why does that community exist in the first place? As a proto-Marxian I think the reason is about the social and economic functions such beliefs play. Those whose sociopolitical interests are served by denying the facts, either because some influential class benefit, or because there is a deeper underlying fear of modernity or change the community represents, need these beliefs to defend their own (imagined?) way of life. The reason, for example, why many conservatives vote against their objective interests, has to do with their loss of community and cognitive investment if they change. The “narrative” they have developed to justify their beliefs is what Marx called “false consciousness”, and so pointing out the harm they do to themselves will not be effective. If we want to shift what the population believes to make it more reality-based, simple engagement, as valuable as it is, will not be widely effective.