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Home » editorials

The Facts About Our Relationship with Facts

Submitted by on April 5, 2018 – 12:33 am12 Comments

Motivationalreasoning3By Chris Mooney, originally published by Mother Jones.

“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.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger, in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial—the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s—and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.

Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens—including one, “Sananda,” who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.

Through her, the aliens had given the precise date of an Earth-rending cataclysm: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin’s followers quit their jobs and sold their property, expecting to be rescued by a flying saucer when the continent split asunder and a new sea swallowed much of the United States. The disciples even went so far as to remove brassieres and rip zippers out of their trousers—the metal, they believed, would pose a danger on the spacecraft.

Festinger and his team were with the cult when the prophecy failed. First, the “boys upstairs” (as the aliens were sometimes called) did not show up and rescue the Seekers. Then December 21 arrived without incident. It was the moment Festinger had been waiting for: How would people so emotionally invested in a belief system react, now that it had been soundly refuted?

At first, the group struggled for an explanation. But then rationalization set in. A new message arrived, announcing that they’d all been spared at the last minute. Festinger summarized the extraterrestrials’ new pronouncement: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Their willingness to believe in the prophecy had saved Earth from the prophecy!

From that day forward, the Seekers, previously shy of the press and indifferent toward evangelizing, began to proselytize. “Their sense of urgency was enormous,” wrote Festinger. The devastation of all they had believed had made them even more certain of their beliefs.

In the annals of denial, it doesn’t get much more extreme than the Seekers. They lost their jobs, the press mocked them, and there were efforts to keep them away from impressionable young minds. But while Martin’s space cult might lie at the far end of the spectrum of human self-delusion, there’s plenty to go around. And since Festinger’s day, an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” says Taber, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers. Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

That’s a lot of jargon, but we all understand these mechanisms when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If I don’t want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody else—everybody who isn’t too emotionally invested to accept it, anyway. That’s not to suggest that we aren’t also motivated to perceive the world accurately—we are. Or that we never change our minds—we do. It’s just that we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.

This article was originally published by Mother Jones, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

12 Comments »

  • Gauravani dasa

    So much for objectivity.

    Is there any statement from scripture that confirms the idea that logic flows from the premise of our sense of self?

    Also, is there a relationship between this idea and samskara?

  • ishan das

    What’s the practical message that one can derive from this article? Surely the Harmonist wants to make a point. But so far I don’t get it.

    However, birth, old age, disease and death, seem to be more than opinions, and logical arguments and scientific research to the contrary are not very encouraging.

    Spiritually oriented people believe there has got to be something better than settling for this miserable, temporary life that we can clearly see on planet earth. And the adepts who have pushed the message have been able to encourage faith by demonstrating the symptoms of pryojana while endorsing the philosophy of eternal life.

    Let the scientists and so-called thinkers continue speculating as they stand in on nature’s moving track that takes their bodies to the recycling grounds. I’ll put all my money on guru, sadhu and shastra.

    • Gauravani dasa

      Dandavats Ishan,

      I think this article provides evidence that the use of logic to justify the pursuit of material life begins with the assumption that life is material. Although empiricists claim to be objective they have a subjective bias from the start.

    • Citta Hari dasa

      Ishanji,

      I’ll stick with Guru , Sadhu, and Sastra too. But I think we must also realize that part of being a guru is being relevant to the times one lives in. Skillful interaction with people (like the scientists and thinkers of our society) requires understanding some of the relative biases people have and how they might be predisposed to interpret what we say. This can lead to greater rapport in which gradually the absolute point of view is introduced.

      The article is also relevant to our personal practice as sadhakas by helping us to become more aware of our own information-processing biases.

  • Tarun

    ….the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes.

    This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else.

    Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins.

    What kills me about these so called rational men, who value science over superstition, is their own, probably unconscious, biases. Climate change is a fact! If you don’t believe that you are a denier, somewhat akin to a holocaust denier it seems. If you don’t unconditionally accept evolution, you are probably involved in an archaic religion. And vaccines!! The wonders of modern medicine! If you believe them to be dangerous you are a new age nutcase! In the name of progress, these enlightened ones are just supporting the status quo; they are promoting what they have been told is right and true. Any so-called facts that go against the norms of Science Man are discarded as quackery. It is all quite mindless, and quite the opposite of what they claim to be; the unbiased seekers of the truth.. Bah!! Political correctness is more like it! Sheeple!

    …we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.

    We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers. Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases

    Easy to say.. hard to do!

    • Indranuja

      To say a fact is truth is not necessarily logical. We gain facts thru our senses which are inherently defective. Even if we say we can create a paradigm in our mind that is based on truth what is the basis of this. I may have believed something, like Santa Claus, when I was 4 only to have it completely debunked when I was 5. There may indeed be a Santa Claus figure somewhere in some universe who does stuff we see as belonging to that magical realm of the child’s mind. The Seekers after all believed and had “proof” whereas what the writer calls facts like: “Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins.” This sentence is not factual but a belief statement. Even the idea of global warming has been superseded by Climate Change, meaning no longer can we say the planet is just warming up now the reality of this change means the Northern part of Europe will also go into a deep freeze as the North Atlantic current slows and stops thus cooling the North Atlantic and plunging N Europe into longer and more sever Winters. So every fact we gather is only so when it is processed thru our senses and mind and finally comes to rest as part of what we know is according to our experience. Take our paradigmatic figures like Visvanath Chakravati or Srila Prabhupada. To us they are part of the foundation upon which we build our spiritual practice. Yet few on this planet would agree with that statement as they would say it is simply some religious dogma. And when the writer says: “Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases.” is that not in itself biased? To say the scientist is a purely rational being who looks at objective fundamental facts and draws conclusions is simply ridiculous. Each discovery is debunked when the new facts become the new paradigm only to, at some time’ be challenged and once more debunked. The idea we are simply computers drawing out data and casting a new light is simply silly. Each human lives in a unique space and accepts and rejects what he feels is correct or incorrect. For us that is the lens of the parampara, the scientists have their own parampara and follow it till it suits them not to.

      • Kula-pavana

        As the Huna wisdom proclaims: “Effectiveness is the measure of truth”. What is ineffective, can not be true. Lord Krishna, in His form of Time, debunks our beliefs and forces us to re-think what we consider to be true.

  • Kula-pavana

    One issue that can be brought up is that we are all bombarded with a multitude of facts, and we have to chose which facts we want to focus on and interpret. To give an example that is close to home, we have an undisputed fact that when it comes to linear distance, Moon is closer to Earth than Sun. That is something one can even verify with a naked eye when Sun and Moon can be seen in the sky simultaneously. If the Moon was further than the Sun, it would always appear full, but that is not the case. Let alone all other proofs of that fact, from basic geometry calculations to direct distance measurements using laser beam or radio waves. Enter another fact: Srila Prabhupada, a great scholar and a pure devotee whom we see as an ultimate authority, said on many occasions that the Moon is further from Earth than the Sun. Now we have two competing facts. And generally we chose to interpret the facts based on our sentiment rather than based on pure logic and reason. Many otherwise sane and rational people approach facts selectively, avoiding facts that make them unhappy or uncomfortable, often inventing all kinds of supposedly reasonable excuses to do so. We are just so very human. There is no escape from that fact.

    • Citta Hari dasa

      But just because Prabhupada said that (based on the Bhagavata of course) doesn’t make it a fact. It’s a fact that he said it, but it’s not necessarily a fact in the sense that it’s objectively true. Another fact: the guru is the disciple’s ultimate authority in spiritual matters but not necessarily in terms of relative issues. This fact would have allowed many to keep their faith intact when the obvious conflict between the observable distance and the scriptural statement arose.

      • Kula-pavana

        1. It is not really based on statements contained in the Bhagavatam. Bhagavatam verses in question are clearly talking about relative distances between various planetary planes of existence and the Garbhodaka Ocean plane, not the linear distances between various celestial bodies. It is merely a common assumption that this is the message of Srimad Bhagavatam.
        2. When a guru presents himself as the ultimate authority, period, it is hard for a dedicated disciple to have a dialogue with that, picking and choosing which statements of his guru are true and which might potentially be flawed or false.
        3. The most complicated thing for us seems to be figuring out a relationship between various facts we encounter in life, and assigning priority to them, as well as of course determining what is a fact, and what is just a belief or opinion.

        But in general I agree with what you are saying.

  • “Guru as ultimate authority”
    Why?
    Whatever a bhagavata says, nature will follow…
    The “facts” (so-called empiric observation which is illusory anyway) will follow his words, always. This is the mysticism of the bonafide bhakta on the strength of his pure devotion to Bhagavan.

    • Citta Hari dasa

      Indira, what exactly do you mean by “The ‘facts’… will follow his words, always.”? Are you saying that if a mahabhagavata when addressing a relative issues says something that is empirically demonstrably incorrect that we should dismiss the empirical evidence and take the word of the devotee to be true?

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