Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On denialism

It's a very frustrating problem. As the old saying goes, "Don't confuse me with the facts, my mind's made up," and that is indeed how most people work most of the time.

If you don't already know about it, and you're into deep thoughts, you might want to bookmark Massimo Pigliucci's webzine Scientia Salon. He discusses a recent conference on denialism at Clark University here. We are currently in a very dangerous historical moment (my point, not his) in which a basic membership requirement for one of the two major parties in the world's most powerful nation is to believe a whole lot of important stuff that is not true.

The trap is that facts, reason, critical thinking -- none of these are of any use. In fact, research shows that when confronted with contrary facts, true believers just did in deeper.. An endless parade of experts can testify in front of James Inhofe's committee presenting every possible proof that humans are changing the planet's climate and that the consequences will be catastrophic, and the denial will just grow deeper.

So what is to be done? Obviously if I had the magic bullet we wouldn't be in this mess, but I will say that the key to the problem is more cultural than it is intellectual. We have to make saving the planet something the cool kids do, in essence. I largely credit the entertainment industry with the astonishing cultural transformation regarding attitudes toward homosexuality. The only people who are really going to establish the truths of evolution, environmental threats, macroeconomics (no, cutting rich people's taxes does not create jobs), and the fallacy of "free markets" are movie and TV producers, fiction writers, comedians, celebrity chefs, and such. Scientists should keep saying what they believe and keep answering questions, but the only ones who are going to accomplish very much are also entertainers -- Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his ilk. He pays as much attention to his costumes and his hairdo as he does to his words, and well he should.



mojrim said...

The "cool kids" program works with young people that are not receiving other indoctrination but not elsewhere. The current problem is fundamentally tribal, i.e. the hard data is coming from sources associated with other, evil ideas. So long as scientists (and other educated people) are tied to the forces of modernity (e.g. abortion, gay marriage) that segment of society will continue to reject their words.

The same is true for a number of progressive causes, such as unions and national health care, that should be easy sellers among the white working class and working poor. The problem is that the american left cannot shut up about its social-issue hobby horses long enough to woo that segment of society.

Don Quixote said...

By the way, regarding today's column and yesterday's (the "Supreme" Court possibly invalidating the Affordable Care Act through specious judicial activism): Here's a plan.

50% or so of Americans seem perfectly okay with it if we bomb the shit out of other peoples, if we have no universal health care, if we deny climate change, if we shoot African-Americans, if we oppress women, if we abuse children, etc.

But these same people would NOT be okay with it if we took away their sports. Athletes generally make a shitload of money, and have health care. So my fantasy is that we enlist these guys and deny American people their spectator sports--especially football--till Affordable Care is ensured, or till Scalia and Thomas are impeached so that it will be.

It seems like another evil plan on the part of the business interests who run this country to use the SC to invalidate the ACA, so that the senators and representatives can't be held accountable!

Cervantes said...

I can't really see the NFL going along with that . . .

Mo, I think there is something to that but it's not clear to me how you can ask people to subordinate their moral beliefs to some other cause. And in fact, pretty large majorities favor access to abortion -- to varying degrees -- and a majority now support same sex marriage. Granted that's a very recent development. We'll see what happens.

mojrim said...

The same way the dens managed to silence labor for 30 years, Cervantes. Seriously though, those are not moral positions but practical ones. Opposition to them is moral, which is why they are incapable of rational thinking on the subject.