Thursday, July 15, 2010

Scientific Study: Misinformed People Become MORE Certain When Presented With Facts

Every scientist and atheist has run into this: You're having a discussion with a religious person who holds beliefs that are simply wrong, and you have solid facts that show that they're wrong. Maybe it's about obvious conflicts in the Bible like Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2, or how the various versions of the Easter story can't be reconciled, or why creationism can't possibly be right. You carefully and politely show them the facts ... and they become more entrenched in their position, not less.

Why is that? It's baffling!

Now a scientific study reported on National Public Radio confirms it. This isn't our imaginations, it's real. People really do actively resist the truth.

Take the case of Jan Brewer (governor of Arizona) who claimed that border-patrol agents had found beheaded bodies in the Arizona desert. It turned out her claim was a gross exaggeration – most of the border violence is on the Mexican side of the fence. But she started a myth, and people believed her. Nothing new there.

But here's where it goes off the tracks: when presented with evidence showing that the governor was wrong, people who believed her didn't change their minds. In fact, they actually believed the falsehood more! Instead of changing their minds, they concocted theories that there was a government conspiracy to fool us, to cover up the true level of violence along the border. The truth is that undocumented Mexicans are, on the whole, one of the most law-abiding groups in America, and there has never been a single case of a beheaded body found in the Arizona desert.

Somewhere down inside me I've always understood that people's ideas are entrenched. I even wrote a whole chapter of The Religion Virus about why this is biologically important: it helps our survival if we can pass information from one generation to the next with high fidelity. Children are biologically programmed to learn, and then as teenagers they're programmed to "freeze" their knowledge so that when their parents die, the information will be safe until they can pass it along to their children.

But this study goes one step farther. Apparently memes (the ideas that reside in our brains) are not only entrenched, but they're actively resistant to change. They defend themselves. They build counter-arguments when threatened.

It's frustrating, but the old adage "Know your enemy" comes to mind. If we assume that logic and facts will prevail against faith and falsehoods, then we don't understand our enemy. The enemy is irrationality and myths, and it's the human mind itself. The human mind is apparently programmed to resist change.

We can argue all we like with adults, but the real battle has to be fought in our schools. Early education is the key. Human beings have to be shown how to think rationally and be taught true science and history while young. By the time we're adults its often too late.


  1. Hi Craig,

    I am catching up with comments; work and school have been a killer lately. Nevertheless, I read this posting with particular interest for it is so true. As you noted in your book, Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli is an excellent example of this. I have used this in conversation innumerable times in the past, but it is rejected out-of-hand. In a way, it's fascinating, for it is, quite frankly, irrefutable proof that the form of government our founders have given us isn't what most radical Christians think. So, it's simply rejected.

  2. Craig, I don't think the solution is as simple as using education to sort of "corral" an unfortunate tendency we all possess. I agree that it's a maladaptive trait, but I don't think we're all are equally afflicted. There is a small but growing body of evidence suggesting a neurological foundation for fundamentalism. Here are a couple of articles I've come across:

    Neuroscience & Fundamentalism

    Xanax Redux

  3. cipher – Here's a belated "Thanks!" for posting those links. Both articles are fascinating. I somehow missed them back in July when you posted to my blog.


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