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Scientific American

Logic-Tight Compartments

published January 2013 | comments (21)
How our modular brains lead us to deny
and distort evidence
magazine cover

IF YOU HAVE PONDERED how intelligent and educated people can, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, believe that that evolution is a myth, that global warming is a hoax, that vaccines cause autism and asthma, that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration, conjecture no more. The explanation is in what I call logic-tight compartments—modules in the brain analogous to watertight compartments in a ship.

The concept of compartmentalized brain functions acting either in concert or in conflict has been a core idea of evolutionary psychology since the early 1990s. According to University of Pennsylvania evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite (Princeton University Press, 2010), the brain evolved as a modular, multitasking problem-solving organ—a Swiss Army knife of practical tools in the old metaphor or an app-loaded iPhone in Kurzban’s upgrade. There is no unified “self” that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. Instead we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules often at odds with one another. The module that leads us to crave sweet and fatty foods in the short term is in conflict with the module that monitors our body image and health in the long term. The module for cooperation is in conflict with the one for competition, as are the modules for altruism and avarice or the modules for truth telling and lying.

Compartmentalization is also at work when new scientific theories conflict with older and more naive beliefs. In the 2012 paper “Scientific Knowledge Suppresses but Does Not Supplant Earlier Intuitions” in the journal Cognition, Occidental College psychologists Andrew Shtulman and Joshua Valcarcel found that subjects more quickly verified the validity of scientific statements when those statements agreed with their prior naive beliefs. Contradictory scientific statements were processed more slowly and less accurately, suggesting that “naive theories survive the acquisition of a mutually incompatible scientific theory, coexisting with that theory for many years to follow.”

Cognitive dissonance may also be at work in the compartmentalization of beliefs. In the 2010 article “When in Doubt, Shout!” in Psychological Science, Northwestern University researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker found that when subjects’ closely held beliefs were shaken, they “engaged in more advocacy of their beliefs … than did people whose confidence was not undermined.” Further, they concluded that enthusiastic evangelists of a belief may in fact be “boiling over with doubt,” and thus their persistent proselytizing may be a signal that the belief warrants skepticism.

In addition, our logic-tight compartments are influenced by our moral emotions, which lead us to bend and distort data and evidence through a process called motivated reasoning. The module housing our religious preferences, for example, motivates believers to seek and find facts that support, say, a biblical model of a young earth in which the overwhelming evidence of an old earth must be denied. The module containing our political predilections, if they are, say, of a conservative bent, may motivate procapitalists to believe that any attempt to curtail industrial pollution by way of the threat of global warming must be a liberal hoax.

What can be done to break down the walls separating our logic-tight compartments? In the 2012 paper “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing” in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, University of Western Australia psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues suggest these strategies: “Consider what gaps in people’s mental event models are created by debunking and fill them using an alternative explanation…. To avoid making people more familiar with misinformation…, emphasize the facts you wish to communicate rather than the myth. Provide an explicit warning before mentioning a myth, to ensure that people are cognitively on guard and less likely to be influenced by the misinformation…. Consider whether your content may be threatening to the worldview and values of your audience. If so, you risk a worldview backfire effect.”

Debunking by itself is not enough. We must replace bad bunk with sound science.

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21 Comments to “Logic-Tight Compartments”

  1. William Dietrich Says:

    Michael says it is a myth “that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration”. No one in Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth claims that it was orchestrated by the Bush administration. Over 1,500 Architects and Engineers have studied 9/11 and claim what the Government is telling us is not true based on the scientific evidence. Check it out on

    As to who orchestrated it, they leave that to others to surmise. I wonder why Michael keeps ignoring all the scientific evidence when it comes to 9/11? I do know there are a lot of people who think Michael has Intelligence ties to the Government. Could there be some truth to that?

  2. Robert M Hall Says:

    Yes, Mr. Dietrich, but does he walk to school or carry his lunch?

  3. Albert Says:

    Mr Dietrich,
    It seems that Mr Shermer’s article is right on the money. You unwittingly gave him another perfect example.

  4. John Heininger Says:

    Having read a considerable amount of Michael’s material I long ago discovered that one needs to be highly Skeptical of the Skeptics. Who seemingly have a view of reality so narrow that they can see through a key-hole with both eyes. Who look at the natural wonders that surround them on every side and see nothing but matter in motion. Who regard the universe and the biological world as “The Greatest Show on Earth”, yet assert there is no grand master conductor. Who apply vast amounts of “intelligence” to research biological systems while asserting we live in a universe that manifests no intelligence or design. Who argue that unguided mutational DNA code errors and “blind” undirected natural selection, which has no overall perspective, and no “predictive power”, can assemble breathtaking biological complexity, when in fact natural selection hasn’t the foggiest notion of where anything, and everything, is evolving to, or even why.

    Skeptics and atheists like Shermer work tirelessly to prove that there is no ultimate meaning, purpose or transcendent hope to life or existence. And seeking to persuade all others that we live in an uncaring indifferent universe, Convinced that the world should join then on their journey to their barren existential wilderness. Accompanied by a scientific community likewise committed to the unverifiable dogma of philosophical naturalism and materialism. All fully convinced that finite human reason, and limited scientific insights can produce a “Theory of Everything”. And thus define the ultimate nature of ALL REALITY. Another name for this is SCIENTISM.

    Little wonder a growing number of people are starting to conclude that science has lost its way and has gone slowly mad. And that our best and brightest have seemingly been educated beyond their intelligence.

    Sorry, someone had to say it.

  5. Robert Prior Says:

    Another example.

  6. Me Says:

    Building 7 was controlled demolition, but hey keep spreading the lie while pretending to be paragon of reason and truth.

    We are starting to see through the illusions:)

  7. William Dietrich Says:

    Albert, Your comment provides no evidence or facts. Please don’t cite the 9/11 report. A 12 year old can see through all the lies and propaganda in a report written by political hacks. The report was not written by scientists who researched the facts and data. William

  8. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Wow. This article has proven to be a fertile ground for some very entertaining comments. I wish some were a bit more stimulating, though. This compartmentalization is a bit like non-overlapping magisteria within the mind.

    I wish, for example, JH’s chiding of ‘Skeptics and atheists’ had broached a much more interesting topic: are scientists who do good reputable research and yet hold religious beliefs still ‘skeptics’? [FWIW: This is not a hypothetical question I have a number of colleagues who hold religious views and yet publish solid, careful and trustworthy papers. Whereas some of the others are so caught up in the publish or perish culture that one must take their papers with a grain of salt - is it CV-padding or is it a 'result'?]

    I’d enjoy exploring the ramifications from taking either the yes or no positions. (Another way to look at it is: “Is Skepticism an all-or nothing proposition?”)

    Let me try to get the ball rolling…

    If a person can have non-skeptical positions in some areas but be very skeptical in others how can we know which areas are which (e.g. Linus Pauling)? It could create a huge problem of trust that weakens the entire skeptical community. Or we could approach skepticism the same way scientists approach science: specialization. But this could lead to fragmentation – the UFOlogists would not communicate with the Old Earth Geologists and no one would talk to the crypto-zoology skeptics. (BTW: One possible remedy is more general skeptics conferences aimed at practitioners – where skeptics could present their work as short talks and posters).

    OTOH: We could say that a skeptic must take a rationalist view on a certain ‘canon’ otherwise we cannot trust them (who would put much stock in a scientific theory whose author claims it was given to him by Angels?). Of course, that raises the question “Who decides what positions a skeptic must take?”

  9. Robert Neary Says:

    One of the pitfalls in assessing claims skeptically is that there is so much conflicting information out there, some of it highly detailed, which can “seem” credible. 9/11 conspiracy theories are but one example. However, one of the tools we have as skeptics to delineate between more credible, versus less credible, information is to consider the source; or who benefits, or whose agenda is advanced from promoting one position over another?

    Take for example a recent PBS “Frontline” documentary which explored how successful organized opposition to Global Climate Change has been in casting more doubt in the public mind even through 97% of the consensus of climate scientists support the theory of Anthropogenic driven global warming. So successful has this movement been that politicians are now less willing to even openly reveal their positions, one way or the other, on climate change. The documentary interviewed several very compelling opponents of climate change, many of them appearing quite rational and reasonable in their arguments. However it was also quite obvious that these same people were not scientists, but instead members of business and industrial trade organizations and smaller-government advocacy think tanks. The implications were clear; there appeared to be an underlying conflict of interest to those anti-climate change proponents. The credibility of their information therefore becomes suspect.

    Most of us lack the independent capability to personally measure the speed of light, the distance of galaxies from our own or confirm plate tectonics. But I think we accept these facts largely based on the consensus of sources of this information and perhaps may conclude that the purveyors of this information are not motivated by some undisclosed personal agenda; so we tend to consider these sources more credible and acceptable.

    I was watching TV when the second plane hit the World Trade Center tower. As a skeptic, I fully accept that what we witness with our own eyes sometimes may not necessarily be the way things are. (That is why many of skeptics also practice performing magic illusions, to illustrate that very point.) But though I am not an engineer, the conflagration and resulting building collapse pretty much fit with what I reasonably expected would happen. So when I encounter those offering an alternative or contradictory explanation to such events (in addition to my invoking Occams Razor) I also question who benefits from promoting such alternatives and why? My acceptance or rejection of information is somewhat dependent upon considering the source.

  10. tpayne Says:

    Happy new year Michael, to you and your family.

  11. Robert Says:

    Bad Boy Scientist, I believe the idea of skepticism as an all or nothing proposition is incompatible with human nature, specifically the way our brains have evolved to process information. The logic-tight compartments Shermer discusses would exist in essentially every normal human brain at this stage of evolution. In other words, we all believe things that are not true and are not dissuaded by factual information. The fact that we know we are susceptible to such beliefs may allow us to guard against them, but it does not automatically eliminate the beliefs we hold. Despite this, we still have skeptics.

    That being said, skepticism is a process, not a belief. The use of the scientific method to obtain and interpret data is an important part of skepticism. This does not mean that all outcomes using the scientific method will be accurate on their own. There are various biases that we know occur in data collection and data interpretation, even though we attempt to guard against these biases. One way to guard against the biases is the pier review process. It takes not one skeptic, but many to find the uncoverable truth about a matter. A hypothesis is made, it is tested, and the data is reported. Then others perform tests attempting to confirm the outcome of the original and subsequent tests. These processes can be followed despite the fact you believe in unicorns. If you were to turn the process on your belief in unicorns, you might be in for some serious cognitive dissonance, but it does not mean you cannot engage in the process.

    The idea that someone who holds beliefs that are incompatible with skepticism cannot be viewed as a skeptic, and their theories must also be incompatible with skepticism is the argument from authority fallacy turned on its head. Instead of “A is an expert in X, and A says Z about X, therefore Z must be true” you have “A believes in Q, which does not survive skeptical reasoning. A says Z about X. Z must not be true.” Neither reasoning deals with the merits of the statement Z.

    Also, the idea of trust within the skeptical community is somewhat of an laughable concept. I think we should not trust each other. We should require each other to show our work and lay out the basis of our assertions. This does not mean we are to be obstinate, and be constantly skeptical of well documented and proven phenomena. For instance, I consider the possibility of these logic compartments Shermer writes of, but I do not possess the requisite knowledge of evolutionary psychology to know whether he is correct in this article, or if this theory is as magical as leprechauns. I accept what he says in this article as possible, with no comment on the probability of his assertions. If I wanted, I could look up the theories he has mentioned, talk to those educated in the field, and educate myself on the subject. I won’t, but I could. Until I do, I am not in the position to say whether the theories put forth in this article are accurate or not. They are possible, but not law in my book.

    The question isn’t whether or not all the beliefs possessed by a person do or do not live up to our own interpretation of reality, but whether the work they have done, and they wish to be considered, is up to snuff.

  12. Greg Howes Says:

    Michael’s article is interesting, and in a sense obvious when we consider our own attitudes on controversial issues. I believe that most of this is caused by motivated reasoning – but it is more personal than Michael suggests.

    I’ll use the 9/11 issue as an example. As a licensed Architect, I have listened to the arguments about 9/11 being controlled demolition. When faced with obvious discrepancies, the supporters I’ve talked to have deflected attention to different parts of their argument. They focus on small issues that are difficult to explain, rather than the complex larger mechanisms that are required to make the event a conspiracy. They dismiss the big picture, and ask me to explain the details. They refer to some group of Architect’s and engineers that agree with their theories as the experts (it’s always a small group – not the majority). I know many Architects and engineers, and I can find a people within that group that believe some strange things – that doesn’t make them true simply because they are quoted as “experts”.

    Substitute global warming, evolution, or any other controversial issue; the argument methods are similar. The supporters I know are actually “comforted” by their conclusions. There is a strong emotional tie to these issues, hence the strong emotional responses here.

    This all points to the main purpose of these compartments – emotional security. People I know that believe the conspiracies find personal satisfaction in their conclusions, even in the case of 9/11 when that assumes almost unimaginable moral actions by others. There is also a sense of “club” in being different; a sense of being in an inner circle of knowledge. These are all comforting.

    Breaking down these walls involves personal discomfort – something people will not easily embrace. It’s the flip side to our evolutionary response to explaining the world around us – looking for explanations that make us comfortable; the ironic result of being intelligent beings.

  13. William Dietrich Says:

    Greg Howes, You offer no facts or evidence that what the Government tells us happened is the truth. Why would you believe the Government?? The Government track record is one of lies, cover ups and false flag operations. Do you believe politicians lie to us? If your answer is Yes, why would you believe the politicians who are elected and hold office are not continuing to lie to us? If you trust politicians to tell us the truth, then I suggest your trust is misplaced.

  14. Greg Howes Says:

    William, It appears that you believe the Government as a whole is fundamentally a group of liars. Nobody will ever be able to prove to you that the government is always telling the truth. I’m sure they do lie to the public. The coverups eventually come out – you mention them so how else would you know about them. You will always see them as liars. You are more comfortable believing that, so it is uncomfortable for you to change your perspective.

    The problem with your argument is the scope of the lies. Is there anything the government says that is true? If they are all liars, then at what point do they become liars? The local government is made of some people I know personally. Are they all liars? Do they become liars only in Washington? Only in certain offices? How is that done? Obviously, the people at DMV are not telling me lies all the time, so in your view there must be some line that gets crossed. You fit that line to reinforce your views, and assume that is a simple process.

    The argument I’ve never understood is how this group (size?) of lying governmental officials can coordinate unbelievably complicated coverups, and numerous immoral acts with such efficiency and secrecy, but simultaneously be so inefficient and wasteful in regular governmental operation. I know people that have worked at HUD and become physically ill knowing the waste and general malaise that permeates that department (even though the institution is created with good intentions).

    Finally, we know that secrets are rarely kept. In this information age, the adversarial nature of politics makes every small defect fair game. Leaks are a way of life – and are that much easier to disseminate. Is it really possible that this huge inefficient machine in Washington is able to keep so many people from leaking so many secrets? If you really believe that the government is lying about 9/11, then how many people would have needed to complete the task and know the “truth”, 1,000/5,000/10,000? You believe that none of them would be interested in the fortune that could be made off the book rights? Movie rights? The publicity? None would ever feel guilt or want to speak the truth – even on their death bed?

    As the head of NASA said in response to a question about the conspiracy theory of hiding the dead bodies of aliens, (I’m paraphrasing) “If we had alien bodies I’d be the first to bring them out. Our budgets are getting cut all the time – do you have any idea how much extra money we would get from congress if we could show the world that aliens exist?”. That is much closer to how the government really works.

  15. KerriO Says:

    Awesome post, Robert (January 2nd, 2013, 1:50pm).

  16. William Dietrich Says:

    Greg Howes, Thousands of people worked on the Top Secret Atomic Bomb project in WW 2 for years and there were no leaks. No one knew about the project other than those working on it. Not even VP Harry Truman knew, who on becoming Pres. was surprised when he was told. So yes, thousands of government officials can work on Top Secret projects and with no leaks.

    The public opinion polls show that the majority of Americans do not believe the Federal Government tells them the truth. They believe they are told lies because of all the Cover Ups and False Flag Operations. If you want to believe the Feds, go right ahead and do so, but you are in a minority in the Public Opinion Polls. The Pew Research Center Public Trust in Government Polls conducted from 1958 to 2010 show that 80% of Americans do not trust the Fed Government. You are apparently in the 20% who do believe the Gov. Count me in the 80% who don’t.

  17. Fred Kohler Says:

    If you lie to any federal government official you can be charged with committing a felony. Most US States have similar laws. If the government, or any government official lies to the public its OK.

    Nevertheless I accept the government’s version of 9/11, especially because it would have involved an almost impossible conspiracy for it not to be essentially correct. What would be the purpose of bringing down the towers with set explosives. The airplane attacks would have been sufficient to provide a causus belli. Its also incorrect that the Manhattan Project did not leak. The Soviets were fully aware of it and the scientific community guessed it without knowing the details.

  18. Ray Sutera Says:

    Greg Howes is right on. I’ve been debating creationists online since the old AOL forums were the place to be and what he says is exactly what I’ve experienced. These people insist on focusing on what we don’t know about evolution instead of what we do know. That allows them to change the subject away from our knowledge and to soothe themselves about their own beliefs. And in reading the posts from the 9/11 conspiracy supporters I see exactly the same thing. Same for the UFO crazies. It’s a strange psychology that allows people to ignore our general knowledge in favor of the smaller details that haven’t been explained yet. That truly is motivated reasoning.

  19. William Dietrich Says:

    Fred Kohler and Ray Sutera, Can you explain why 80% of the American Public dose not Trust or believe the Government? What explanation do you give for that?

  20. Fred Kohler Says:

    In answering the question asked by William Dietrich I would point out, that 80% of the American public lacks critical intelligence. Its an even higher percentage in many other parts of the world. Why would they otherwise believe in the various religious fantasies which defy common sense, if they were sensitive to contradictory evidence.

    The government lies about many things, but rarely about matters in which lying would NOT enhance their interests. Also politicians lie in order to get elected. The public is entirely correct about this fact.

  21. Robert Henry Says:

    I know of many who say the idea that global warming is largely or significantly anthropogenic is either false or not settled, but I know of no one who says global warming is a hoax. The latter idea, of course, is quite easy to disprove, and it seemingly counters the former claim, thus relegating it to the rubbish heap of unsupported ideas and establishing the “truth” of anthropogenic global warming (otherwise called “man-made climate change”).