National Column: The truth is out there. The problem is that we don’t believe it

by Edward Keenan

THE AGE OF UNREASON

Facts and other fiction

We like to think our beliefs are influenced by facts and logic. But that isn’t quite true – and perhaps has never been less true than now. We delve into the science, politics and reality of The Age of Unreason, today in Insight.

There are days, in this age of Trumpian “alternative facts” and Trudeaupian selfies, of climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers and all the varieties of “truthers,” when you begin to wonder if things like facts and evidence and logic play much of a role in our public debates anymore. There’s a tenor to the barrage of insults on social media that further raises the question.

And then there’s this: Less than half of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump believe his son Donald Jr. attended a meeting with Russians about information that might be harmful to Hillary Clinton.

A poll last month by Public Policy Polling found that 32 per cent of Trump supporters believe there was no such meeting, and a further 24 per cent say they’re not sure. This, the pollster reported, “is in keeping with the general attitude of Trump supporters,” of whom 72 per cent say the whole Russia story is “fake news.”

The astonishing thing about that – astonishing to those of us outside the Trump-true-believer bubble, anyhow – is that Donald Trump Jr. is among our direct sources of information on that meeting and what it was about. In early July, the president’s son tweeted an email chain showing he had agreed to attend a meeting with someone who was said to be a “Russian government attorney” who had “very high level and sensitive information” that would be incriminating to Clinton.

In other words, he has admitted it and provided evidence to back his admission. Yet his father’s supporters continue to believe the story is made up by the mainstream media and Trump opponents.

There are clues all around that make you suspect we live in an Age of Unreason. And then there is this – a smoking gun in a red hand that seems to close all room for doubt.

Way back at the dawn of modern western civilization, Aristotle laid out the three modes of persuasion that are used to make arguments: ethos (the credibility of the speaker), pathos (the emotions of the audience) and logos (logic or reason applied to the facts of the matter at hand).

Today, it is all too clear that the last of these – perhaps long thought to be the most valid and important – plays only a small role in how we discuss and decide things.

Ethos continues to play a prominent role. In online debates among the left, the credibility of a speaker, hinged on their identity (race, gender, sexual orientation, class), often seems to be a trump card.

For those on the right, the alignment of a news organization (Breitbart versus the Failing New York Times, say) may be more persuasive than the reporting itself. Who is speaking, and how we regard them based on their identity and political alignment, seems to remain a big part of how we choose what to believe.

Pathos, the emotional argument, looms even larger, from the resentments that fuel political debates to the offences that fuel campus complaints to the hope and “sunny ways” feelings that have driven the success of candidates such as Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau and Jack Layton. Often enough, it certainly seems that for many people a feeling is an argument in itself.

And what about Logos? What about reason? It isn’t that we’ve discarded it altogether. Just that it’s increasingly clear we use it pretty selectively and mostly to confirm the conclusions we’ve drawn based on the emotions and identity affiliations we use to make up our minds.

There’s a significant and constantly growing body of research that shows that we use reason – we evaluate the facts and apply logic – primarily to convince ourselves and others that we are right.

You can go online and look up “confirmation bias” or “motivated reasoning” and see that studies show, again and again over a period of years, people seek out and believe information that aligns with what they already believe and to disbelieve or avoid any information that contradicts those beliefs.

“Facts don’t change our minds” as the title of a New Yorker article from earlier this year put it – and when we encounter facts that contradict what we believe, we tend to stop trusting the person giving us the facts, rather than revise our longstanding belief. Such an experience may, paradoxically, reinforce our belief.

It’s easy to see this tendency in those we disagree with – of course I led off with an example about Trump supporters, who seem obviously wrong to me, and I receive dozens of letters a week from people who claim to see my bias and illogic equally clearly.

But there’s no reason to think this tendency to make up our minds first, seek evidence later and think ill of anyone who disagrees with us is limited to one group of people or one side of the political spectrum.

A study reported in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology recently summarized in an article in Vox found that pretty much everyone – liberals and conservatives alike – will do a lot to avoid even finding out what their opponents think or why they think it.

In both the United States and Canada, they found people would forgo money in order to avoid hearing about the political thinking of those they disagree with. Asked to place the experience of hearing the political views of opponents on a desirability spectrum, those on the left and right each rated it almost as bad as having a tooth pulled.

“Largely, the partisans were unfamiliar with their viewpoints. So it’s not the case that people are avoiding learning about the other side because they’re already familiar,” the Vox piece says. ” ‘People on the left and right,’ the study concludes, ‘are motivated to avoid hearing from the other side for some of the same reasons: the anticipation of cognitive dissonance and the undermining of a fundamental need for a shared reality with other people.’ ”

This may not actually be new. If it is true, as it seems, that it is part of how our brains work to make up our minds first and seek evidence later and to avoid even hearing about why some people disagree with us, then it seems equally likely it may always have been the case. And yet for many of us, this tendency seems increasingly pronounced recently.

To me, it seems that some politicians, especially conservative politicians, are particularly brazen in disregarding evidence. Former Conservative justice minister Rob Nicholson, who served under Stephen Harper, told Maclean’s magazine in 2009 and 2010 fairly straightforwardly that when it came to getting tough on crime, statistics about crime levels and evidence about whether policies would be effective were secondary to his government and the “feeling” of voters was more important.

Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto seemed to take disregarding evidence beyond gut feeling and openly despising expertise to an extreme, while Trump in the U.S. seems to have only further extended this longstanding right-wing trend.

To others, it seems equally apparent in recent years that the appeals of both Obama and Trudeau were based on platitudes about hope and “sunny ways” – though both talked about evidence-based decision making and logic, their popular appeal was about a feeling of optimism their supporters wanted to share.

And beyond the ballot box, you can see the emotional arguments, and the shutting down of any but the most toxic debate, pretty much everywhere. The internet has broken up the information monopoly of the big pseudo-professionalized media giants who pride themselves (maybe too much, but pride themselves still) as objectivity-seeking honest brokers. Today, anyone with a theory and a web connection can provide news and information, unfiltered by skeptical reportorial middlemen, directly to an audience looking for it.

Social media seems to be a steroid strengthening the tendencies: on Facebook, friend selection and algorithms mean one can find a circle of news, information and discussion made up almost exclusively of like-minded people sharing stuff you already believe to be true. On Twitter, the partisan lines of the short-form argumentative bursts are drawn like trenches in warfare – much disagreement consisting merely of accusations of malice or bias or dishonesty lobbed back and forth, with people who share any controversial opinion subjected to a perceived mobbing as hundreds or thousands of accounts rush to tweet insults at them.

We may not be any more unreasonable than in the past, but if this feels like the Age of Unreason, perhaps it is because the science demonstrating it has piled up at the same time that our technology and politics make it more transparent to us than ever before.

The problem is obvious enough: our society and political system are based, in large measure, on the premise that disagreements can be resolved and compromises can be reached when reasonable people attempt to persuade each other. If we’re all unreasonable, and are avoiding each other’s attempts to persuade, what can we do?

It’s not an abstract question, either. Policy questions, life and death decisions, hinge all the time on democratic resolution of disagreement.

And in a democracy, you cannot actually defeat your opponents – at least not all of them – instead, you must persuade them. Given what we know in the Age of Unreason, how can we do that?

The science about this, as I understand it, offers few satisfying conclusions. Very few of the papers on motivated reasoning seem to suggest any reliable ways of getting around it.

For each of us, assuming we want to be reasonable, perhaps being aware of all of this is a first step – we can attempt to be aware of our biases and perhaps seek out information that might change our minds.

As unpleasant as we find it, perhaps anyone serious about public discussion needs to seek out arguments we disagree with in order to at least attempt to understand them. If not to be convinced ourselves, at least to be able to know our grounds for disagreement.

And perhaps knowing that identity and emotion play such a large role, we need to seek to address them in any arguments we make if we’re hoping to persuade people. People are not going to change their sense of themselves, and their emotions are real to them whether they seem justified to other people or not. So it would seem – logically, to me – that attempts to persuade people would need to leave room for their sense of selves and the perceived validity of their own emotional reactions.

And then there’s that thing the researchers cited in Vox said about why we avoid different opinions in the first place: “the fundamental need for a shared reality with other people.” Perhaps acknowledging or emphasizing shared humanity is part of how we can come to agree or at least disagree reasonably.

Some research exists showing the possibility that short, personal door-to-door conversations by LGBTQ canvassers were effective in reducing the transphobia of those they conversed with.

(There’s a strange story behind this reported by Wired magazine: a 2014 study claimed to show exactly this effect in a gay marriage canvass. It was quickly shown to be fraudulent, and the research was retracted. But then in 2016, the people who debunked the original paper conducted the experiment for real trying to address transphobia, and got the same result as was originally reported.)

It does seem to me like the realization of shared humanity – and friendship, family ties, shared identity – should be effective in creating an emotional connection that might open people’s minds to more productive discussion. To me, it seems reasonable. But perhaps I am motivated to think so because I want to believe there’s a way to have a productive conversation, and I’m looking for evidence to support me in that belief.

If that’s the case, at least I know I’m not alone in doing so.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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