In “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” (Mother Jones, April 18, 2011), Chris Mooney offers to explain “How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.” For example,
Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” says Taber, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.
Which is, apparently, a new phenomenon to the folks at Mother Jones. In support of their view, we could offer New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s desperate public flirtation with the later disowned Ida (Darwinius masillae): “It All Begins (and pretty much ends) Here.”