Thursday, February 03, 2011

One Reason We Believe

No, this isn't a post about religion but about belief in general. Jeff Wise, whom I read occasionally, had an interesting post about the erroneous belief that vaccinations cause autism in children, but I think his words apply to other baseless beliefs:

The anti-vaccine movement is not an isolated case. Rather, it is an example of a problem that is endemic in the public health sphere. Scientists and policy makers operate on the assumption that if the public is provided with the most up-to-date, scientifically verified information about their health, then they will be able to rationally weigh their options and make the correct choices. The reality is anything but. Millions of highly intelligent, well-educated consumers are continually being misled by erroneous information because they fall victim to a single simple error of logic.

This pretty well explains why people think the Affordable Care Act is deficit-increasing, or that climate change is a hoax. You find one bit of data that seems to contradict the rest of the facts and cling to that in the face of all the other evidence. If you've ever heard someone say, "This winter has been so much for Al Gore's ideas!", you know what I'm talking about.

I think most people find a belief or course of action that feels right, then find facts to ex post facto justify that position. That's why it's so incredibly difficult to change someone's opinion; he/she is emotionally committed to that position, and won't change until emotionally ready to do so. Until then, facts and logical persuasion are like bullets to Superman: they bounce right off.

Mary Griffith is a good example of this. She was pretty strongly anti-gay until her gay son's suicide broke through her emotional resistance and got her thinking more clearly about human sexuality. It would have been better if something less horrific could have gotten through to her, though.


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