… is the alternative to sacrificing the beliefs that turn out not to be true.
Lane Wallace has a column on “motivated reasoning” – i.e., believing what you want to believe, even in the face of the evidence – up on The Atlantic website. She gave me a chance to riff on my claim that attachment to opinion is among the great human evils.
Author: Mark Kleiman
Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out.
Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken)
When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist
Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993)
Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989)
View all posts by Mark Kleiman
9 thoughts on “Dying for your beliefs”
I sent around the GB Shaw quote about the "best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity" — a friend sent back a devastating short e-mail: "He seems pretty sure of that."
Not Shaw; Yeats, "The Second Coming."
Does it hurt her argument that she takes John Tierney as an authority?
I had a moment of profound cognitive dissonance once — at a PTA meeting, of all places. Describing it is something like describing a mystical experience, it doesn't translate. Suffice it to say, two completely different, irreconcilable, closely held and valued ideas met up in my concious mind, and the room started to spin. Fortunately I was sitting down and could put my head down on the table in front of me. It was unnerving.
An exchange at a PTA meeting in a scene from Sayles' Lone Star (I hope I've attributed the lines correctly):
Participant 1: I've only been trying to get across the complexity of our situation down here… cultures coming together in both negative and positive ways.
Participant 2: If you're talking about food or music and all, I have no problem with it, but when you start changing who did what to who…
Participant 1: We're not changing anything. We're just trying to present a more complete picture.
Participant 3: And that has got to stop!
As Orwell put it:
"In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one's own mind."
This certainly explains why the complaint against the right wing has been that they decide what they want and tailor the process of collecting facts, analysis, and policy development to get the outcome they wanted in advance.
Now that we recognize the logical and psychological problems caused by motivated reasoning, how do we deal with evangelical religious and ideological political institutions that exist to teach their students to practice motivated reasoning? Because that's exactly what Regent University, Liberty University, the Discovery Institute, the Heritage Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the CATO Institute and other cults all do.
We really need a more aggressive effort to teach it in public schools, alongside logic and human psychology. Part of the problem is that without it, many people never really learn to "second-guess" this type of stuff, to think "Well, maybe I'm wrong . . ." It won't help the kids slogging through religious private schools, but little will.
Especially since so much of it is counter-intuitive, like our tendencies to attribute external causes for our own problems but internal causes for those of other people.
One important thing to do in this respect is (see the other post on this) changing the way that many fields involving critical reasoning are taught. If you look at most of the potted histories of science, for example, it mostly looks as if the evidence for each discovery all pointed in a particular way and scientists just obviously figured things out. (And that previous generations of scientist must have been really stupid not to notice these obvious things.) It's only when you get deeper into most of the fields that you learn that the data didn't all point in one direction, and that previous theories often did a good job of predicting the stuff that was available for them to predict.
Comments are closed.