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.