Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Understanding Confirmatory Bias and Dead End Arguments

By Gary Berg-Cross

In her popular blog “General Myers and His Endless War on Error”, Sarah Hippolitus took on PZ Myers essay, Sunday Sacrilege: Sacking the City of God, for its deliberate and provocative vitriol. The argument is simple, telling people they are wrong in this way just doesn’t work and is perhaps counterproductive. Sarah cited Chris Mooney's essay, The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, in which Mooney explains why berating people, such as religious conservatives who are emotionally committed to an idea, can make them defensively cling harder to their beliefs and biases. An in-your-face criticism raises emotions and people respond defensively overwhelming any chance at reason. Over the last 50 years of social and cognitive research we have learned a considerable amount of the general type of phenomena of how people frame and defend biases (bracketology being one area where “experts” are visibly wrong) and unsupported beliefs and how we rationalization our beliefs rather than use reason to arrive at opinions. I’ve written on this topic earlier in such blogs as Rationalizing Irrational Choices: That $45 entree and presidential choices” and Boxing Ourselves In with Category Errors. We have come to a sad, but scientific understanding from a coordinated system of studies that we humans are imperfect reasoners. The fact is that the emphasis on rationality encouraged by Enlightenment thinkers is a noble effort, but difficult, and does not come easily in many circumstances. The modern parlance covering this is to talk about gut feeling that overwhelm and, in effect, reverse engineer our opinions. More recently the studies have focused on group differences in cognitive styles and the role of emotions, like fear, in these differences.
The scientific study of general phenomena of changing the minds of people with convictions, especially faith-based ones,  goes back a long way, but progress was made starting in the 50s. Stanford University social psychologist Leon Festinger summarized it succinctly based on a study of a UFO cult that was convinced the world would end on December 20th 1954 (see“When Prophecy Fails”):
"A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point."
And it wasn’t just odd folks that show biases responses. Experimental studies of experts, such as Physicians, show they are often biased in clinical judgments. Their expertise could be improved upon by simple statistical rules, a discovery that prompted some hope for things like artificial, expert systems to aid human judgment.But this human tendency gets enhanced when it interacts with factors like ideology,  frightening circumstances and cultural framing.
The more recent studies on differences of reasoning style, which I touched on in Epistemological Styles. There I contrasted scientific with theist styles. Scientific styles are cognitively taxing and require considerable cultural support for chained combinations of postulates that get tested by experiment. These may confirm a belief but also disconfirm it. It’s all part of a humbling style that values exploration of ideas with controlled observation and measurement, analogical models and statistical analysis of regularities of populations.Such methods have been applied to self-study processes by which small groups have moved the country  away from intellectual  processes to more of a conservative agenda in this  country (see for example Hacker and Pierson's work Off Center). Such conservative, social-political engineering reflect reaching people who prefer far simpler style . It is to be an idea advocate and largely focus on evidence to justify existing belief and gut feelings.Taken as a whole this tends to appeal to conservative minds more than liberal ones.

Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, discusses such things in his recent book The Republican Brain The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality. His finding is simply states: conservatives and liberals don’t just have different ideologies; they have different psychologies (aka epistemological styles) that help explain their fact and expert denying positions on such things as climate change and evolution. It’s not just that they don’t know facts it is that they have a tendency towards a confirmatory bias that reflects a preference to focus on evidence that supports existing belief. Another part of who conservatives are is their preference for ideas that bind groups together rather than “truth” in an objective sense. And one of the big factors driving conservative beliefs is their tendency to emotional, fight or flight responses. Eye tracking studies, for example, show that people who score high on conservative positions tend to track “threat” objects in an environment (a knife or gun – maybe a stranger). There’s survival value in such a tendency so one may imagine how such a tendency was selected in populations and later frozen into cultural values. Conservatives tend to be ready to be afraid and this can turn off the reasoning side of the brain.
You can see a good discussion of all of this on the recent Up With Chris Hayes, where Mooney and Jonathan Haidt, UVA moral psychologist & author of The Righteous Mind, discussed group differences. They agreed that liberals tend to be more open to new experiences, new data and convincing finds. As a consequence they tend to be more sympathetic to scientific process, and take their scientific findings more seriously. This is a tendency/predisposition and not a hard and fast thing in all circumstances.  The socially generated tendency of Conservatives, meanwhile, is that they just do it differently. Haidt explained:
“I want to fully agree with Chris that the psychology does predispose liberals more to be receptive to science; my own research has found that conservatives are better at group-binding, at loyalty, and so if you put them in a group-versus-group conflict, yes, the right is more prone, psychologically, to band around and sort of, circle the wagons.”
This is consistent with Sarah’s earlier argument about the reaction of believers to strong, mocking arguments. In conversations with conservative thinkers (as opposed to  liberal styles) we should be aware that they may not have the same regard for the Enlightenment’s style of rational argument. We are either fooling ourselves or just being a bit too rigid in our style. But we need not be quiet or withdrawn certainly in our own communuty, and we can use the new understandings that come from cognitive and social science to guide us. The value of framing (see my Framing Arguments: You say Flaming Atheists and I Say Non-Confrontational Humanist) 
is one tool we can use. Another is to recognize that individual reasoning is biased. We are often battling a strong confirmatory bias that repels facts and strict logic. What we need instead is get into a dialog to challenge our biases as well as others. Socrates was on to this a long time ago and its time to update that technique drawing lessons from the relevant science. Overcoming a reflexive conservative denial of the science of denial would be a big step. We need to get the word out on that.


Hos said...

Of course the main point missed in this post, as well as in Ms Hippolitus's earlier one, is that the point in using arguments and mockery is not necessarily to convince your opponent, but expose their shoddy and baseless claims for anyone else that could be watching. For example, when Bobby Henderson sent his tongue in cheek letter to Kansas board of education, of course he knew they would never give the Flying Spaghetti Monster equal time to creationism, and that was never the point. Chris Mooney is not the only one pursuing the path of accomodationism. The Templeton foundation (whose chair is a supporter of Rick Santorum) has poured millions into this ideology and there is absolutely nothing to show for it.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I would argue that Chris Mooney is trying to explain how to be understood and effective without intellectual accommodation. He is more interested in understanding why thing happen than committed to an ideology. The Templeton foundation on the other hand seems to have a different and partially hidden theist agenda. It is for this reason that people like Dan Dennett won't play their game of saying nice things about God and religion(see http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110407062345AA8EJpT). Mooney is just not into such agendas.

Carl said...

Chris Mooney is no more than a fence sitter for accommodation. If people just sit there and do nothing and accommodate other than take action religion would still have it's Iron Heel on society and we would be as backwards a society as when religion ruled for a 1000 years of dark ages.

Explicit Atheist said...

Chris Mooney is a Templeton Fellow in journalism, he takes their money. Dan Dennett has integrity, he won't lend his name to their efforts.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I don't trust the Templeton Foundation and respect people like Dennett for rejecting their approaches. Mooney has explained his position in a Discover magazine Intersection article "On “Accommodationism” and Templeton"


This includes a link to a podcast where he explains his position at length http://doubtreligion.blogspot.com/2010/07/episode-70-accommodationism-with-guest.html

I would be disappointed of people who have accepted some support like Mooney, Haidt, Dacher Keltner (researcher in positive psychology), evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson or researchers such as Herb Gintis (a leading game theorist and behavioural economist) and Michael Gazzaniga (one of the world’s most famous neuroscientists) are compromised. They have participated in some degree of Templeton projects or fellows. But I'm willing to listen to their argument and judge their behavior as I see it.

Explicit Atheist said...

Absolutely, arguments are to be judged on their merits, not on the messenger. In that regard, I consider Chris Mooney to be both worth listening to, and to have a mixed record. In particularly, I think his blaming scientists for scientific illeteracy (a major thesis of his book Unscientific America) in the US is mistaken. The statistics on science illiteracy, which show that it hasn’t changed much in thirty years, count against the author’s thesis that it is not only a growing problem but one that was once palpably improved by science popularizers but is now exacerbated by atheists.

Chris notes in that book that ". . college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and is caused by human activities.".

But If science illiteracy is due to this Cool Hand Luke (CHL) Effect—the failure to communicate—have the facts about climate change been communicated more effectively to Democrats than to Republicans? Chris doesn't seem to notice this conflict between the evidence and the conclusion he is arguing for in that book.

Over at her website, Christina Pikas adduces some data showing the opposite, that it is not the lack of scientific knowledge that explains  “why the public doesn’t support some scientific endeavors” like genetic engineering or stem-cell research. Clearly, before we can fix the problem, we have to properly diagnose the problem.

M&K claim repeatedly that the problem of scientific illiteracy is getting worse, e.g.: "For all these reasons the rift between science and mainstream American culture is growing ever wider.". But again, this conflicts with the evidence, which is that the prevelance of scientific illiteracy has been more or less unchanged for a long time.

The fact is that his book is full of strong assertions and very short on evidence backing up those assertions. And it fits very nicely with Templeton agenda of avoiding placing the blame where the evidence actually does point: Religious belief.

Explicit Atheist said...

The book and its argument are fundamentally political rather than epistemological, and they are political in a very particular way. There is much talk throughout of the need to ‘bridge divides,’ and this creates a basic distortion of the thinking. If the overarching goal is to bridge divides (as they at least once say it is), then differences must be papered over or ignored – and that is simply not compatible with free inquiry.

Explicit Atheist said...

I am talking about that earlier book, not his latest book. It appears that his new book may be motivated in part as an effort to respond to some of the criticisms of that earlier book. But I can tell you that earlier book didn't help his reputation and that I share the perspective of those who criticized that earlier book.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Talk about bridging divides does not necessarily evoke in me the creation of distorted thinking. It may of course and lead to unworkable compromises, but honest conversations may serve to educate. Socratic dialog might be thought of as one mechanisms to bridge differences due to lack of understanding.

Explicit Atheist said...

An example of how the goal of bridging divides can interfere with the integrity/quality of the argument is a situation where there are two opposing views, for example the view that the existence of entities is revealed by dreams and personal interpretations of personally experienced feelings and the view that the existence of entities is determined with intersubjective empirical evidence. It is easier to convince both people that the latter is true than to convince both people that the latter is false. So in the interest of bridging differences the latter argument is criticized as being counter-productive and said to be out of bounds. But are we really bridging differences or just papering-over and refusing to deal with the differences? Are we really understanding each other better or just refusing to address the disagreement? How is it productive for the side that is wrong on the merits to be given a monopoly to loudly and publicly tout their views while the people who are correct on the merits must shut the fuck up to not upset anyone? How does that do anything other than promote unbalance? THERE IS NO WAY, FORGET ABOUT IT, THAT ATHEISTS ARE GOING TO PUT THEIR ATHEISM IN A CLOSET TO APPEASE OR SATISFY ANTI-ATHEIST BIGOTRY IN NAME OF BRIDGING DIFFERENCES. NO WAY NO HOW.

What is needed are more people to challenge anti-atheist bigotry, we don't need people arguing why we must appease and surrender to it and excuse it and refuse to judge it negatively in the name of being positive and constructive. Phooey on that. If that is your idea of being constructive and positive and strategically smart than shame on you.

Explicit Atheist said...

I meant to say "than to convince people that the former is false"

Explicit Atheist said...

And I meant to say "former argument" in the subsequent two sentences also.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Explicit atheist's example of subjective views of dreams entities vs. a scientific understanding allows we to make a point. It is not always useful to see the arguments dichotomous. There are people on the 2 sides, but many people may have a foot in each camp and hold conflicting ideas. Reaching this group to move them in a less muddled and empirical direction is important. If it means that some people get a chance to move this way by hearing Mooney via a Templeton Foundation that might be good. Why cede the floor on issues to them when people may not understand what Science says about a topic like dreams or empirical tests of dream interpretation? The question is whether people like Mooney will self censer and compromise their science rather than package it in a form that people can assimilate. We may honestly disagree about individual people's interests and integrity, but we might agree on what strategies make sense and are worth trying.

Explicit Atheist said...

HONESTY says that seeking and overcoming skepticism in an evidence first approach is the only way that produces results for understanding how the world works. That places science squarely in conflict with religion's faith first approach, which has been proven over hundreds of years to be completely useless and therefore is out of bounds within any scientific activity. Chris Mooney claims to be a defender of science, but he is a protector of religion, and the two roles are in conflict, as is his taking Templeton money when Templeton's sole purpose is to deny the very real conflict between religious faith and our modern understanding of the world, including our understanding of what method is successful and what methods are useless in acquiring information about how the world works. When it comes to scientific illiteracy, Chris Mooney is part of the problem, he is committed to obfuscation, he is a "framer" who not only works hard to deny that religious faith based method of asserting knowledge is itself in conflict with modern knowledge, but who tries to discredit people who dare to,point out this fact.

Explicit Atheist said...

Let me put it this way: Atheists are 100% allies with the scientific community, but people like Chris Mooney keep falsely claiming that atheists are the enemy and the problem. That is inside out, upside down, backwards, slander. Until he stops claiming that people like Dawkins, Coyne, etc. are enemies of science he has no credibility. Someone who calls allies enemies is speaking for some political agenda, or self-serving agenda, or something or other. The problem of scientific illiteracy is not a problem for which atheists hold any blame. On the contrary, anti-atheist bigots are much more responsible for scientific illiteracy. Stop this blame the victim idiocy. If you think that atheists have some obligation to shut up to appease that anti- atheist bogitry then I think you are very very wrong. Wrong pragmatically, wrong ethically, wrong strategically, wrong in every way.

Explicit Atheist said...

Another way to understand this: you are confusing the easier way with the better way. The easier way is not the better way. It is easier to not do software configuration managemt, but it is better to do software configuration managent. Think about all of the contexts where people have a tendency to mistaken the short term easier way for the better way.

Explicit Atheist said...

Maybe, you and Chris Mooney and lots of other people prefer that we lived in a world where science and religion merged, like the world of 600 hundred years ago. In that world things naturally existed in a state of no movement and god pushed the earth to make it circle the sun. It is important to understand that that could have been the way the world works. If it were then we would have discovered that the world works that way and our science would have determined that materialism/ naturalism was useless and that to understand the world we needed supernaturalism/gods/religion. Science and religion would be the same if that was the world we lived in. to understand the world we would pray and meditate and worship god and we would receive revelation. THAT COULD HAVE BEEN THE WORLD WE LIVE IN, BUT IT IS NOT. This is the conclusion of hundreds of years of collective human effort, of the science as it actually happened and unfolded here in this world that we live in It does no good to try to deceive people and defend and protect their fantasy that we live in some other world in the name of attacking scientific illiteracy. That is two self-contradictory and internally inconsistent goals.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

What is the evidence that Mooney is a defender of religion or that he wants to live in a world where science and religion are merged? He argues that some new atheist actions are counterproductive and we can debate the short and long-term effects of that on particular groups.

On speaking the truth issue, here a bit of what Mooney said based on discussion in a secular humanist panel appearance.

"I gave a response to this line of argument–about “truth”–on the panel and on the latest Point of Inquiry. Of course truth is important. However, practically speaking, we also have to pick and choose where we can set the record straight–there is a vast amount of nonsense out there, religiously impelled and otherwise, and it doesn’t go away easily, if at all. There is far more of it than any single person can argue with or refute, and not all of it is equally damaging or pernicious.

In this context, setting priorities is not dishonest."

See http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/10/16/the-new-york-times-on-atheist-infighting/ for the quote and
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/us/16beliefs.html?_r=1 for a report in the NYT on the panel debate...

Hos said...

Templeton gets its reputability in the scientific circles from the likes of Mooney. If prominent scientists and science journalists refused to take Templeton's money it would become a pariah like Discovery.
Mooney IS dishonest in making claims way beyond what is justified by evidence. He usea evidence from psychology to take cheap shots at people who are fighting the good fight-the "gnu" atheists. But his claim that psychology justifies his approach is totally bunk. He fails to look at the historical record which suggests Dawkins' approch may work better.
As for evidence that he is a defender of religion and wants religion and science to mix-look no further than the title of his blog: "interface", that being the interface of science and faith.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Hos said, "If prominent scientists and science journalists refused to take Templeton's money it would become a pariah like Discovery. "

I'm not sure what Discovery you are referring to. Discovery channel doesn't seem to qualify based on such as "Is Discovery Channel pushing the Atheist Agenda?"

Discovery magazine doesn't seem to qualify for such a label either.

Discovery Institute is not a friend of Mooney as demonstrated by this:

"In his book The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney declares war on intelligent design, calling it a “reactionary crusade” promoted by “[s]cience abusers.” Discovery Institute now responds to Mooney’s war on intelligent design (ID) by publishing a detailed report, “Whose War Is It, Anyway? Exposing Chris Mooney’s Attack on Intelligent Design,” documenting 14 major errors Mooney makes when writing about ID in his book."

So what am I missing about Mooney and Discovery?

Explicit Atheist said...

I have no problem with setting priorities. I have a big problem with saying that people should not advocate for and defend atheism because that is counter-productive or because doing that interferes with higher priorities. I cannot blog for any group that cannot stomach atheism advocacy. It is one thing to say that we should not advocate for lawsuits that we cannot win, it is altogether different to say that people cannot politely voice opinions because atheism upsets other people. Chris Mooney focuses on people being closed- minded, and if the standard is only advocating what is acceptable to closed- minded conservatives then that is ridiculous, there is no way that is a sensible standard. Furthermore, when a legal decision is favorable, and all I do is express kudos to the judges, if that is unacceptable, then there is no way this is a group where I can function. That is far too restricted, in far too peculiar a way. And given the contents of other blog posts here, I have a very difficult time accepting this kind of standard being applied to me as being reasonable in any way or form.

Don Wharton said...

Matthew (Explicit Atheist), I want to make it clear that advocating for explicit atheism is something that I want centrally included as something that is done on this blog. Beyond that we are having a new high page view rate of 8,600 per month. Your posts are a very appreciated part of this wonderful success.

Passionate discussion is also part of this blog and anyone who posts here can expect countervailing views to also be aarticlated. This post and the comment stream is just an excellent example of what works in a successful blog that our community wants to see.

I love and so should everyone participating in it.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

"Chris Mooney focuses on people being closed- minded, and if the standard is only advocating what is acceptable to closed- minded conservatives then that is ridiculous, there is no way that is a sensible standard."

I wouldn't say that is the position argued here. I'm not a big fan of a broad "only" one argument to be made. There are some people who are so closed minded that you might waste your time. There is a larger group of people with positions that may be influenced, but are less likely to listen to rational only or strong styles. They may have their consciousness raised and minds opened by other approaches such immediate experience rather than abstract argument, for example. It has been widely argued that as people have been exposed to openly GBT people at work and in their neighborhood their initial dislike and bias softens. This argues for a more mixed and situation appropriate approach and not an absolute either-or. Shows the alternative styles to influence people is not to say that there isn't a role for forceful argument when appropriate and their is always a value in having clear statements on positions. These can be stated positively.