Building a wall with values

Throughout the day, I’m reading books and news stories and listening to podcasts. This week, I saw a recurring theme in my media selections: values and the entrenched position.

I guess I was predisposed to thinking about it. I spent last week preparing a lecture on ethics for a professional licensure exam review. I included a bit on bias in science and the ooze of politics into the scientific endeavor.

I came across an article about last week’s EPA hearing on regulating greenhouse gases where opposing sides (which happened to be along party lines…surprise!) brought their scientific experts to argue their points. I both loved and hated the article. It was infuriated but also an excellent example of how science was used as ammunition, not as a tool for decision-making. [Notice the comment about how both sides left with the same views they came with. Yeah…there are few fence sitters in Congress when it comes to this topic, courtesy of political ideology.]

I was listening to the Point of Inquiry episode with Dan Kahan who talked about how your values color the information you collect. You are going to favor that which supports your view or interpret it in light of your preexisting beliefs. Values even decide who you consider an expert and who’s an idiot. That’s confirmation bias.

I am currently reading Goode’s Paranormal Beliefs. Speaking about UFO believers in particular, and paranormal believers in general, in opposition to materialists, he writes, “At a certain point, neither side is going to convince the other of its position”.

The same applies to fringe beliefs, climate change, energy policy, abortion, and so on. Any contentious issue that requires a value judgment will end up with irreconcilable opposing sides.

In examining 1000 paranormal investigation groups in my research, it was quite clear that the underlying belief of the group in the supernatural realm of ghosts, demons and monsters swamped their ability to be objective. Every observation was connected to the idea that a location harbored some entity – every sound, cold spot, instrument reading or out of the ordinary instance was positive evidence. Their foundation assumption that a mystery entity exists predisposed them to find data to support this assumption. One could come up with more logical explanations for seemingly anomalous events but the paranormalist was not dissuaded. To her, there was an obvious, supernatural, answer. The paranormal had merit; it was part of her worldview.

Our values and preconceptions color our view of data. Observe the comments section on a news website regarding stories about environmental issues, political issues, social issues or medical issues. Views are polarized. People take sides. Black or white with few risking the middle ground.

Neither side will be convinced of the other no matter how many points and counter-points are made. If someone has internalized a belief into their worldview that something JUST IS, it will not be easily extracted. Too much structure has been installed around the belief. So, facts just bounce off this fortified wall. This is why scientists fail with just the facts and why point-counterpoint debates don’t sway any who aren’t deliberately hanging out on the fence. Odds of breaking through the wall are low; it’s a better idea to find a route around or over it.

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Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news. Doubtfulnews.com SpookyGeology.com

0 thoughts on “Building a wall with values

  1. Not sure I entirely agree. While confirmation bias exists, I think it doesn’t apply to everything, but more to identity. And secondly, people clearly do change their minds all the time, but they have to be the ones to do it (or at least think they are).

    First, a lot of the polarization you’re talking about has less to do with actual belief (though that does settle in with time) as it does with identity. Many of the scientific issues that have become politicized have as much or more to do with being anti-“elite.” David Frum nailed it last year (which is why he’s no longer welcome in American conservative circles), when he said that populism in the US is typically against the educated, not the wealthy, and that it is “a class struggle between those with more education than money against those with more money than education”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/magazine/14FOB-idealab-t.html?_r=1&ref=politics

    Hence why the targets in this country are scientists, teachers, reporters, and “Ivy League elites” (funny how that gets tossed at Obama, yet Bush went to Yale). For all the whining conservatives did in the 1990s about how liberals in America fostered “identity politics” (aka, weren’t all white men), the explosion of a certain brand of populism, rallying around Sarah Palin after her nomination for VP candidate in 2008, shows exactly how much identity politics drives the conservative base in this country (there have been a slew of comments, almost to the point of looking concerted, against her by conservative intellectuals this week, one calling her the Alaskan Al Sharpton, but those comments are specifically coming from the recognition that while she repulses everyone else, she and those willing to appeal to that identity, own the GOP base).

    Second, I agree with you that dialog in a most cases is pointless. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t change their minds. They clearly do. But most people don’t like being told to change their minds. That’s why a lot of skeptical efforts don’t work. Especially when you get to a lot of fringe areas that have more than a dose of populism, part of the appeal is that they are against the authorities, and anyone trying to explain why a non-mainstream idea is wrong is automatically coming off as an authority. Now, some of the people who believe in such things aren’t ever going to change their minds, you’re right. But many might, but only if they feel like they’ve come to it themselves. That’s the trick if you read say, von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods. His entire writing style is like an episode of a formula forensic tv mystery murder show: telegraph the next bit of the plot to the audience, so that they “figure it out” a minute before the characters on screen do, and they’ll feel smart. It’s flattering, and it works.

    The solution is not to respond to fringe claims point by point, or to disprove them. Yes, there is a useful audience for that, to have a repository of answers if people go looking (like Snopes). But that’s as far as it should go. Instead, skeptics, scientists, anyone wanting to address these issues should instead actually address these issues from the framework of investigation. Most people love the idea of action, of someone doing something. That’s the appeal of all this ghost hunting business, that someone is doing something, they’re “hunters” or “chasers,” they’re not “analysers” or “pontificators.” So, be active. I’ve seen this idea emerging recently in skepticism, (Ben Radford has framed himself this way, and the MonsterTalk podcast is a great example of how to do this in a discussion format, by bringing on researchers to provide new information, not just to debunk claims). It’s not going to bring die-hard believers over (I’d point to Bader, Mencken, and Baker’s Paranormal America and its division of paranormalists into two types: the “investigative method” has a fair chance with the discovery oriented types [I forget the specific names, I keep meaning to write a review], though no real chance, nor does any method, with those looking for personal enlightenment).

    I don’t think there is much you can do with politicized identity-based issues. America now cannot be the leader in climate changes issues, as one of its two major political parties has made skepticism of climate science a major plank of their identity. You’ll have to look to other societies for leadership on that, at least for a generation or so, or if political division in this country heats up to a boiling point and the system collapses into something currently unrecognizable.

  2. Jeb:

    Thoughtful and thought-provoking comments as usual! Thank you. However, I’m not sure I agree we disagree. 🙂

    This is a good point about “institutional” identity that I didn’t get to bring out in the post. I thought about it and it’s suggested (towing the party line; being able to reasonably predict people’s views by whether they are Republican or Baptist, etc.). People subscribe to what the rest of their social group subscribes to.

    I will argue the point on populism but I admit I’m totally confused by the data. I see your point about anti-elite and I think that is true. However, what do we make of the consistent survey results that show Americans think scientists are reliable sources? (example: use of science for marketing) And that science is a respected profession? (NSF – Science & Engineering Indicators surveys). This relationship must be complicated. I still think (as an example from the tobacco industry and global climate manufactured controversies) that any group is excited when they can use science on their side. It’s STILL respected so they will readily use whatever science supports their view. That’s a head-scratcher but I think Kahan’s talk gave me some insights into that.

    Your idea of “figuring it out” was where I was leading with my closing comment in the post – going around or over the wall rather than a futile attempt to break though. [Readers: please forgive my use of analogies and metaphors but it does help me get my point across.] Point-by-point deconstruction of an issue is not helpful to many but is necessary for those who are out looking for that sort of thing (and is a great exercise in critical thinking). Instead, I advocate the alternative approach from an entirely new angle (unbiased, let’s figure out what is going on here…). A reporter once told me she was VERY interested in someone taking that approach since she was quite sick of the typical ghost hunter approach. As you mention, people who are willing to do the work in investigation (even with a pro-paranormal slant) are curious! If we can find some common ground (like saying, “Hmm, this is a weird thing we have here…), we can move forward instead of butting heads and dismissing each other.

    I argue in my thesis conclusions (which you must have, see your inbox), that paranormal investigators are TRYING to be scientific and do discovery. But, without training, all they can go by is media depictions of such processes. You know that’s not going to turn out well. There is an opportunity there! I’d like to promote seizing those opportunities.

    Time for another post about that soon…

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