Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Some thoughts about denialism

Before we can democratize the institutions, processes and findings of science, we have to democratize thinking. That is, a major percentage of the cognitive processes that are reflected in popular belief and public discourse are not of a nature that leads to truth. Really getting to the roots of why people are so bad at thinking, which we usually imagine to be the one thing we really do well and which we fancy distinguishes us from lesser creatures, is beyond the scope of a blog post and could well be a life's work.

Many people have set out to catalog common forms of fallacy. Here is one commendable effort, although on careful reading I find that the author has managed to embed a couple of his own. Well, clear thinking isn't easy, and that's one explanation for why it's often in short supply -- sheer laziness. But that's just the beginning.

The NYT dedicated this week's Science section to the 40th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon. John Schwarz offers a glimpse of the movement, still going strong, that insists the whole thing was a hoax. What an odd belief to cling to -- think of the massive conspiracy required to convince the world that people had walked on the moon on six separate occasions. What is the motive? Why has no one of the hundreds, or more likely many thousands of necessary co-conspirators never come forward? And of course, as soon as anyone knowledgable looks at their evidence it is immediately clear that it is transparently wrong and ridiculous. (A couple of hints: the reason shadows on the earth, as on the moon, are not pitch black has nothing to do with the atmosphere. It's because of scattering of light from solid surfaces. And, the reason shadows do not all point in precisely the same direction, on the moon as on the earth, is because the terrain is not flat, but rather presents varying angles to the sun.)

But evidence and argument make not a dent in denialists, whether the subject is the moon landing, anthropogenic climate change, or evolution. Conspiracies of thousands or millions of scientists are deemed far more plausible than an unwanted conclusion. As it turns out, the Christian fundamentalists actually consider this a feature, not a bug, and they are proud of it. They call their preferred mode of reasoning Vertical Thinking. There's even a "Christian" magazine for young people called Vertical Thinking, but I'm not going to link to it.

The basic idea behind vertical thinking is that you start with your conclusion -- e.g., God, six days of creation 6,000 years ago -- and then you interpret whatever facts you come across so as to conform with your conclusion. If a fact seems not to fit, that's by definition impossible so there must be something wrong with your observation or some arbitrary explanation for it must be found. (E.g., God put those fossils there to test our faith.) Horizontal thinking, which Mike Huckabee and his friends decry, is when you look at a bunch of facts and you try to reason out the most likely explanation for them. New facts may require a reorganization of your arguments and new conclusions. Then so be it.

The advantage of vertical thinking is that you can hang out with all your like-minded buddies, in the church, the bar, or the Internet, and share your regard for each other and your contempt for all those who do not Believe in the Truth. So again, it comes back to a kind of laziness, complicated by cowardice. But this is really a developmental disability. It is constructed in childhood, by our parents, by the way they instruct us and model the human attributes of thought and belief. For an adult to unlearn the delusions of childhood is very difficult.

I should add that some people develop bizarre fixed ideas as adults, which is no doubt the typical story of the moon landing deniers. I don't actually know why that happens. I happen to think that moon landing denial is sufficiently bizarre to qualify as a delusion and might merit a diagnosis, but actually what is and is not a psychotic delusion is purely a matter of social convention. 6,000-year-old earth does not qualify, but Ted Kaczynski's intellectually defensible belief that industrialization was a disaster for humanity did, and was so certified in a court of law. As far as I'm concerned, Ted is just a violent fanatic on behalf of reasonable ideas, whereas creationists are completely nuts. Update: Lest anyone misunderstand me, Kaczynski was convicted for his actions, but found insane by reason of his beliefs, and therefore spared the death penalty. You could look it up. His actions may have been insane, but his beliefs were not.

The point of all this rambling is that we need to equip more people with better critical thinking faculties. That ought to be the main point of education, and it's quite possibly the biggest and most important challenge we face as a species. We can't solve our problems if people refuse to understand them.


kathy a. said...

ted's a terrible example, and i suggest you re-think that one. he is undoubtedly bright, but like many severely mentally ill people, that nugget of truth at the center of his delusions doesn't make the rest of his reasoning and actions acceptable in the least. sending bombs to people is an extremely irrational way to persuade others of the correctness of one's scientific reasoning.

ted's musings about industrialization would never have been before a court, had he not acted in the horrific ways that he did. the court condemned his *behavior*, and the highly irrational thinking that led to it.

i agree very often with your thoughts, but think this comment is particularly misguided in a post about the need for critical thinking.

Cervantes said...

You misunderstand me. Ted may be insane in some way, but the psychiatrist who examined him for the court and testified that he was legally insane based her conclusion on his beliefs, not his actions. The court did condemn his behavior, but they spared him the death penalty because they concluded that his beliefs were insane.

kathy a. said...

no, no -- he agreed to plead guilty, and the plea agreement was for a life sentence instead of the possibility of death. he did not go through a trial. this plea spared him from all the mental health evidence being presented in a trial -- and it would have all come out, at least in the sentencing phase of a capital trial.

there were various reports from various experts, and as i recall, many ended up on the web. there was not a judicial finding of insanity, or incompetence to stand trial, despite a great many opinions expressed.

at the end of the proceedings, only 2 legal issues were resolved: guilt and sentence. they were resolved by agreement. this may sound persnickety, but that was the legal outcome.

this was not a case about whether industrialization harmed humanity. the outcome did not decide that issue.

kathy a. said...

btw -- the basic plea agreement was between the defense and the prosecution. generally, that can be read to mean the prosecution was unsure it could prevail on sanity, or unsure it could get a death sentence, for whatever reasons. [there was a lot going on in that case -- remember, the person who turned ted in was his brother, and he was promised that ted wouldn't face execution.] the court decided the agreement was not unreasonable.

Cervantes said...

Kaczynski was adamantly opposed to the plea deal. He did not want to be declared insane and he wanted to defend his beliefs in court. The state did not want that to happen, and had him ruled incompetent.

This story was discussed at length in McSweeney's by my friend Gary Greenberg, a psychologist. Unfortunately it's not available on line.

kathy a. said...

i don't disagree with the background comments, but he was not ruled insane by the court. that did not happen.


you are correct that a finding of insanity by a government psych opened the door to the plea: but that is not a court finding.

i'm trying to find the 9th circuit decision upholding the sentence, which lays out the procedural history, but coming up short in the plethora of news stories and such. but legally, if the court had found him insane, this plea could not have gone forward.

kathy a. said...

he wasn't ruled incompetent, either. incompetent people are not legally able to enter pleas.

and yes, he was not comfortable with the plea and sought to set it aside -- that is the focus of the 9th circuit opinion.

in any event, the complexity of this discussion should demonstrate that ted is not a poster child for rational thinking.