Confirmatory Bias

The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science | Mother Jones

Do left and right differ in any meaningful way when it comes to biases in processing information, or are we all equally susceptible?

As a Politics Denier, I have to say that this is a meaningless question. Everyone is equally guilty of bias, insofar as everyone has bias; but each person expresses it in his own interesting way. The exception is the Party Stooge, who expresses it in a boring, predictable way because he is too distracted to bother with discovering his own opinions.

Science denial today is considerably more prominent on the political right—once you survey climate and related environmental issues, anti-evolutionism, attacks on reproductive health science by the Christian right, and stem-cell and biomedical matters. More tellingly, anti-vaccine positions are virtually nonexistent among Democratic officeholders today—whereas anti-climate-science views are becoming monolithic among Republican elected officials.

Gee, isn’t it interesting how their conclusion confirmed their bias?

Some researchers have suggested that there are psychological differences between the left and the right that might impact responses to new information—that conservatives are more rigid and authoritarian, and liberals more tolerant of ambiguity. Psychologist John Jost of New York University has further argued that conservatives are “system justifiers”: They engage in motivated reasoning to defend the status quo.

Apparently, this writer has never spoken with a right-wing anarchist or an academic Marxist. He doesn’t know the difference between a fundamentalist and a traditionalist, or a radical and a progressive. Never, in his entire life, has he had a thought that was not dictated to him by the political press.

This is a contested area, however, because as soon as one tries to psychoanalyze inherent political differences, a battery of counterarguments emerges: What about dogmatic and militant communists? What about how the parties have differed through history? After all, the most canonical case of ideologically driven science denial is probably the rejection of genetics in the Soviet Union, where researchers disagreeing with the anti-Mendelian scientist (and Stalin stooge) Trofim Lysenko were executed, and genetics itself was denounced as a “bourgeois” science and officially banned.

Ouch! Another liberal turns Mr. Ed’s argument on its head. (Ed Darrell, a “history teacher”, once tried to convince me that Lysenko and Stalin, and by extension the entire Soviet Communist state and all ideological Marxists, were anti-evolution and anti-Darwin!)

Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.

Ah, the triumph of Gorgias! Maybe rhetoric will be studied seriously again someday.

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4 thoughts on “Confirmatory Bias

  1. So we tack a political interpretation to a non-political scientific view and then claim that deniers of our politics are deniers of science.

    And they quote Francis Bacon yet fail to see that the Baconian method is not followed by evolutionists or climate scientists.

    People are passionate about ideas they are ignorant of, and when they leave those ideas because they are shown to be false or non-consequential, it has nary an effect on their passion for the latest pop science earth shattering issue. Confirmation bias is a significant issue, as is inability to learn from experience.

  2. Yes, this article was so predictable that I almost ignored it until I saw how it labeled Lysenko as an anti-Mendelian; then I laughed out loud. That sounds absurd today, because no one now would claim that Mendel’s discoveries have political implications.

    Yet, it was serious business up until the neo-Darwinian synthesis was worked out; there was some doubt about whether Darwinism would survive. Stalin and Lysenko saw it as part of a clash of worldviews, with themselves on Darwin’s side. In retrospect, Darwin gets associated with the eugenics and racism of Nazi ideology, and to a superficially educated person, it doesn’t make any sense why Stalin would be for Darwin and against Nazism.

    When communism, fascism, and Nazism were all simultaneously flourishing during the 1920s and 1930s, they were all considered to be “progressive,” as against the old aristocrats and Tories. All were pro-science insofar as they supported science that furthered their political or military objectives.

    But there are many times in history when the “conservative” party laid claim to scientific support, and the “liberal” party rejected the scientific consensus.

    That situation is just one example supporting my contention that ideas do not cause particular ideologies, but rather are merely the instruments of ideologues in constructing ideologies.

  3. I agree that people were dismissive of Mendel when his work did not support the evolutionary theory prior to neo-Darwinism.

    I see this frequently in articles I read where the conclusion contains a suggestion for politicians to do something based on the outcome, but the outcome is independent of whether some action should occur. While it may be polemical, I suspect the authors are so sold to their ideology they fail to see how they are bringing it into their conclusion. For them the obvious conclusion to we have found problem X is the government needs to take action Y.

    Though you have mixed feelings about creationists, you may find this article interesting concerning what we know in science, ie. ideology has allowed some studies to be published and others not published skewing what we know to be true.

    How scientific is our science?

  4. It’s a good summary of the issue. I read Lehrer’s article when it first came out, after he did an interview on public radio. Note that in his original article, he allowed that certain scientific ideas are not open to questioning. I haven’t followed his responses since then to see how much controversy he attracted.

    I’m not antagonistic to the biblical doctrine of creation, though I suppose some creationists have irritated me.

    I do have a problem with the political program of creation science, in which it is promoted as a fundamental creed of Christianity. I see that as an application of pressure in the wrong place.

    On the other hand, the political program in the public sphere is harmless; it makes for much entertainment as evolutionists exhibit their outrage and arrogance, while their acolytes blithely twist evolutionary ideas in order to make them fit traditional prejudices.

    I believe it is the last gasp of Enlightenment ideologues, and soon the evolutionary purists will yield to some kind of syncretic philosophy such as that held by Frances Collins, CS Lewis, Lee Strobel, or John Davison. Even if some kind of directed evolution becomes the scientific consensus, though, I will continue to maintain that macroevolution has no practical significance.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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