28 September 2009

How moral thinking affects scientific reasoning

On the TED blog, Jonathan Haidt says something important about how people interact with evidence. I’ve added some bolding for emphasis.

We engage in moral thinking not to find the truth, but to find arguments that support our intuitive judgments, so that we can defend ourselves if challenged. The crucial insight here comes from psychologist Tom Gilovich at Cornell, who says that when we want to believe a proposition, we ask, "Can I believe it?" – and we look only for evidence that the proposition might be true. If we find a single piece of evidence then we’re done. We stop. We have a reason we can trot out to support our belief. But if we don’t want to believe a proposition, we ask, "Must I believe it?" – and we look for an escape hatch, a single reason why maybe, just maybe, the proposition is false. So people who have a negative intuitive reaction to Obama, or who are fearful about the enormous changes going on, are already inclined to believe rumors against him and his plans. They hear about death panels and forged birth certificates and ask “can I believe it?” The answer is usually yes, particularly if Fox News raises these questions and brings on experts who claim that the propositions are true. Even if Fox News presents both sides, the fact that somebody on TV endorsed a proposition gives viewers permission to believe it, if they want to. Conversely, Democrats can give rebuttals till they’re blue in the face, but if people are asking themselves “must I believe it” about the Democrats’ claims then the answer they will usually reach is “no.” Logic and consistency just aren't very important when it comes to morality.

Haidt frames this in the context of moral thinking, but my experience is that these exact same patterns occur in areas that have little moral repercussions at all. For instance, what is the moral or ethical issue involved in accepting that twelve human beings have walked on the surface of the moon? Part of this may be fear of science, as Haidt notes that:

(M)aterialism is deeply and profoundly threatening to many people.

Science is 100% materialism, through and through, beginning to end. This means that, according to Haidt, scientists are going to have an incredible problem putting their message across on any subject.

Of course, with many scientific issues, I can absolutely see where people think there are ethical issues involved. Is there is any way to break through this pattern of thinking? Haidt’s response fills me with dread, frankly.

While it is useful to rebut charges and get your arguments out in circulation, you have to understand that arguments and evidence have little impact on people as long as their feelings tilt them against you. You’ve got to create trust and liking first, and then people will be willing to listen. People can believe pretty much whatever they want to believe about moral and political issues, as long as some other people near them believe it, so you have to focus on indirect methods to change what people want to believe. You have to get them to the point where they ask themselves “can I believe it?” about your claims, rather than about your opponents' claims.

The first likable, apparently trustworthy person you meet who exposes you to an idea has a huge advantage of convincing you of that idea, regardless of whether it’s true or not. This supports a lot of what Randy Olson is arguing in his book (reviewed here).

The ray of hope Haidt offers is faint indeed:

People may not be logical, but few of them are crazy.

No comments: