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When Science Doesn’t Support Beliefs

Then ideology needs to give way
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Ever since college I have been a libertarian—socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility. I also believe in science as the greatest instrument ever devised for understanding the world. So what happens when these two principles are in conflict? My libertarian beliefs have not always served me well. Like most people who hold strong ideological convictions, I find that, too often, my beliefs trump the scientific facts. This is called motivated reasoning, in which our brain reasons our way to supporting what we want to be true. Knowing about the existence of motivated reasoning, however, can help us overcome it when it is at odds with evidence.

Take gun control. I always accepted the libertarian position of minimum regulation in the sale and use of firearms because I placed guns under the beneficial rubric of minimal restrictions on individuals. Then I read the science on guns and homicides, suicides and accidental shootings (summarized in my May column) and realized that the freedom for me to swing my arms ends at your nose. The libertarian belief in the rule of law and a potent police and military to protect our rights won’t work if the citizens of a nation are better armed but have no training and few restraints. Although the data to convince me that we need some gun-control measures were there all along, I had ignored them because they didn’t fit my creed. In several recent debates with economist John R. Lott, Jr., author of More Guns, Less Crime, I saw a reflection of my former self in the cherry picking and data mining of studies to suit ideological convictions. We all do it, and when the science is complicated, the confirmation bias (a type of motivated reasoning) that directs the mind to seek and find confirming facts and ignore disconfirming evidence kicks in. (continue reading…)

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Paleolithic Politics

Has there ever been a time when the political process has been so bipartisan and divisive? Yes, actually, one has only to recall the rancorousness of the Bush-Gore or Bush-Kerry campaigns, harken back to the acrimonious campaigns of Nixon or Johnson, read historical accounts of the political carnage of both pre- and post-Civil War elections, or watch HBO’s John Adams series to relive in full period costuming the bipartite bitterness between the parties of Adams and Jefferson to realize just how myopic is our perspective.

We can go back even further into our ancestral past to understand why the political process is so tribal. But for the business attire donned in the marbled halls of congress we are a scant few steps removed from the bands and tribes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and a few more leaps afield from the hominid ancestors roaming together in small bands on the African savannah. There, in those long-gone millennia, were formed the family ties and social bonds that enabled our survival among predators who were faster, stronger, and deadlier than us. Unwavering loyalty to your fellow tribesmen was a signal that they could count on you when needed. Undying friendship with those in your group meant that they would reciprocate when the chips were down. Within-group amity was insurance against the between-group enmity that characterized our ancestral past. As Ben Franklin admonished his fellow revolutionaries, we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.

In this historical trajectory our group psychology evolved and along with it a propensity for xenophobia—in-group good, out-group bad. Thus it is that members of the other political party are not just wrong—they are evil and dangerous. Stray too far from the dogma of your own party and you risk being perceived as an outsider, an Other we may not be able to trust. Consistency in your beliefs is a signal to your fellow group members that you are not a wishy-washy, Namby Pamby, flip-flopper, and that I can count on you when needed.

This is why, for example, the political beliefs of members of each party are so easy to predict. Without even knowing you, I predict that if you are a liberal you read the New York Times, listen to NPR radio, watch CNN, hate George W. Bush and loathe Sarah Palin, are pro-choice, anti-gun, adhere to the separation of church and state, are in favor of universal healthcare, vote for measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich in order to level the playing field, and believe that global warming is real, human caused, and potentially disastrous for civilization if the government doesn’t do something dramatic and soon. By contrast, I predict that if you are a conservative you read the Wall Street Journal, listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News, love George W. Bush and venerate Sarah Palin, are pro-life, anti-gun control, believe that America is a Christian nation that should meld church and state, are against universal healthcare, vote against measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich, and are skeptical of global warming and/or government schemes to dramatically alter our economy in order to save civilization.

Research in cognitive psychology shows, for example, that once we commit to a belief we employ the confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirming evidence in support of it and ignore or rationalize away any disconfirming evidence. In one experiment subjects were presented with evidence that contradicted a belief they held deeply, and with evidence that supported those same beliefs. The results showed that the subjects recognized the validity of the confirming evidence but were skeptical of the value of the disconfirming evidence. The confirmation bias was poignantly on display during the run-up to the 2004 Bush-Kerry Presidential election when subjects had their brains scanned while assessing statements by both Bush and Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Half of the subjects were self-identified as “strong” Republicans and half “strong” Democrats. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own preferred candidate off the evaluative hook. The brain scans showed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—was quiet. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex that is involved in the processing of emotions, the anterior cingulate that is associated with conflict resolution, and the ventral striatum that is related to rewards.

In other words, reasoning with facts about the issues is quite secondary to the emotional power of first siding with your party and then employing your reason, intelligence, and education in the service of your political commitment.

Our political parties today evolved out of the Paleolithic parties of the past.

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Mixing Science and Politics (and Economics)

So many of you have taken the time to respond to my blogs thoughtfully that I feel I should comment in kind. In looking through the many comments, however, I see that most of what I would say has already been said by people who responded to my critics. Nevertheless…

First of all, why is it okay to mix science and religion (with atheists eagerly do in debunking religious claims) but not okay to mix science and politics/economics? Why is it okay for liberal atheists to stick it to religious believers and twist the knife slowly, but when it comes to getting your own (political/economic) beliefs challenged, that’s off limits — NOMA (nonoverlapping magisterial) for science and politics? I don’t see how they are different in principle. Skeptic is a science magazine, not an “atheist” magazine; nevertheless, we routinely deal with religious claims and no one ever complains about that. The closest we have come to political/economic issues is environmentalism (Vol. 9, No. 2 — sold out), overpopulation (Vol. 5, No. 1), and global warming Vol. 14, No. 1). For all three we published several articles; in Vol. 14, No. 1, for example, we published articles both skeptical of global warming and accepting of global warming. So I don’t see what would be wrong with publishing articles pro, con, and neutral on political and economic claims.

One person wrote me a private email that said he thought of me as the next Carl Sagan, but now that I’ve gone to the dark side (turning Right, although I’m as critical of the Right as I am the Left), because Carl was “apolitical.” Carl Sagan was many things, but apolitical was not one of them. Carl was a Liberal and proudly wore his politics on his sleeve, such as when he marched in protest at nuclear sites or testified before Congress about the dangers of nuclear winter. I admire him for having the courage of his convictions, which intimately blended his science and (Left) politics. If you think Sagan was apolitical it is because you happen to agree with his politics and so those ideas seem simply correct, not political. If you don’t share his politics (I share about half of them), then it’s obvious that Sagan was not apolitical.

The liberal bias in the skeptical community was identified by many people in the comments section of my blog, for example by “DR,” “James,” and “Devil’s Advocate”:

… Sadly, there is a lot of hatred toward libertarianism at JREF [he means TAM]. I can be an atheist, believe gay marriage is ok, think nothing of smoking pot, and I won’t get half as much grief from a conservative that I do from an American liberal who reels and squirms when I say that the welfare state is immoral or that free trade and voluntary transactions in capitalism promote fair and just outcomes. It’s like the only reason why I have rationalized this set of morality is because I’m a supremely evil person and must be wrong… —DR

… I’m disappointed, but not surprised by the large group of liberal skeptics. I’ve talked to too many Democrat-card-carrying skeptics that spout the same unoriginal, canned rhetoric and continual spewing hatred of Republicans. For a group that supposedly supports tolerance, they’re anything but tolerant …
—James

I’ve three times over twenty years joined local skeptic groups and all three times there was a presumption that if I was a skeptic, then of course I’m also liberal in my politics. Two times I tried to be what I am but was marginalized, treated like a Goldwater (or Reagan, or Bush) mole. The third time I tried to avoid political discussion, but it was not possible, so, unwilling to lie, I left. My refusal to come over to pure liberalism clearly wasn’t going to be tolerated. All I wanted to do was examine UFO claims and crop circles, but… —Devil’s Advocate

Another critic named John D. Draeger makes a good point that I wish to acknowledge: “He [me] does NOT believe that political persuasions and different economic models for how societies should be run are moral value judgements…. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done.” That’s true, in a democracy the majority rules how to divvy up public funds for social services, and that tends to be more of a value judgment than a science. But as someone else wrote just below that, quite cleverly I think…

First of all, democratic societies can still be evil, as the famous saying goes: “democracy is two wolves and one lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” And then in another famous quote (attributed to several), “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. Thus our founding fathers gave us a republic … if we can keep it.

Even this is a value judgment, I agree, but surely we can apply some forms of social science to inform our value judgments. For example, we may as a society make the value judgment that it would be good if every child received a basic K–12 education. I agree with this value judgment, and would add to it the value judgment that it would be equally important for every child to have a computer and Internet access because that is the future of education. So we share that value judgment. However, the next question is a pragmatic one: who is going to pay for this education (and computers/Internet)? Parents? Churches? NGOs? Charities? Government? If the latter — the value judgment we have made — then do parents get to choose among the various government schools of where to send their children? (No.) Do parents who choose to send their children to private schools have to also pay for government schools? (Yes.) Is that fair? You make that value judgment. I don’t think that it is fair. To be consistent, if you are pro-choice on abortion you should also be pro-choice on education. The deeper value judgment here is being pro-choice about everything. Choice = freedom.

Some correspondents hated the political diagram because it seems to elevate libertarianism above the traditional left-right spectrum. Okay, then you come up with something other than the left-right linear spectrum to visualize where someone would fall on that line who is socially liberal and fiscally conservative. You draw it and I’ll publish it in a future blog.

Some people hate the word “libertarian.” I’m not crazy about it either, but haven’t thought of a better label. Labels are useful because they enable people to take cognitive shortcuts, but they also lead to shortcuts to nuanced thinking about what someone believes. “Oh, you’re one of those…” full stop. We all do this, of course, but I call myself a libertarian for the same reason I call myself a feminist, an atheist, and a pro-choicer — because it is the accepted language and we have to communicate ideas with language. But I much prefer to be assessed on specific issues.

Several of you said that I am a victim of one of my own central tenets of baloney detection: the confirmation bias, where we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore the disconfirmatory evidence. Yes, I will admit, I do this. Everyone does, and we must guard against it, especially when it comes to religion, politics, and economics. To combat this problem, I read the conservative Wall Street Journal and the liberal Los Angeles Times. I listen to such conservative talk radio hosts as Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Praeger as well as the very liberal Bill Maher. I have read Karl Marx’s books as deeply and carefully as I have read Adam Smith’s books. I have read a host of books from liberal and conservative and libertarian authors on the current economic meltdown. And although I have a few libertarian and conservative friends, because I work in the sciences and in publishing, the vast majority of my friends, acquaintances, staff, co-workers, and colleagues are liberals who I can assure you are never shy about letting me know where they think I’ve gone off the political or economic rails.

Finally, let me add that one of the appealing things to me about the libertarian worldview is that it is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist. I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to allow the little guy to succeed and to break up power blocs that prevent the average Joe or Jane from reaching their full potential. The Constitutional divisions of power in our Democracy — emulated by many others around the world — are a huge improvement from centuries past that allowed or enabled some to succeed at the expense of others. That was a zero-sum world. Over the past 200 years the spread of democracy and capitalism has done more toward achieving a Nonzero world than anything else — more people in more places more of the time have more power and liberty and wealth than any time in the previous four millennium. Therefore, the more we can spread democracy and capitalism the better off more of us will be more of the time.

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The Political Brain

A recent brain-imaging study shows that our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias
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The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises … in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

—Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620

Pace Will Rogers, I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a libertarian. As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found at least something to like about each Republican or Democrat I have met. (continue reading…)

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Turn Me On, Dead Man

What do the Beatles, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Patricia Arquette and Michael Keaton all have in common?
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In September 1969, as I began ninth grade, a rumor circulated that the Beatles’ Paul McCartney was dead, killed in a 1966 automobile accident and replaced by a look-alike. The clues were there in the albums, if you knew where to look.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s “A Day in the Life,” for one, recounts the accident: He blew his mind out in a car / He didn’t notice that the lights had changed / A crowd of people stood and stared / They’d seen his face before / Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords. The cover of the Abbey Road album shows the Fab Four walking across a street in what looks like a funeral procession, with John in white as the preacher, Ringo in black as the pallbearer, a barefoot and out-of-step Paul as the corpse, and George in work clothes as the gravedigger. In the background is a Volkswagen Beetle (!) whose license plate reads “28IF” — Paul’s supposed age “if” he had not died. (continue reading…)

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