‘Science deniers' believe what they believe because they believe it

Posted at 2:32 PM, Feb 04, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-04 16:25:17-05

This is going to be an article about our views on policy issues that are seen as grounded in science, such as climate change and childhood vaccinations.

First, a disclosure: I had whooping cough a few years ago even though I was vaccinated as a kid. I was a mess for weeks. And I probably got it because some parents somewhere didn’t get their kid vaccinated against whooping cough – and probably not against measles, mumps and rubella, either.

Now, for a very high percentage of readers, that alone is enough information. Anything else I write will be a waste of their time.

Those who believe that childhood vaccinations should not be mandatory, or that they can cause autism or other dire effects, will dismiss me as biased.

Those who believe that that the autism-vaccine link is a conspiracy theory perpetuated by “science deniers,” and that vaccinations must be mandatory, will assume that whatever I write next will be confirmation of their beliefs.

You just don’t get it

Indeed, it is an act of writerly generosity to disclose my bias up front.

That is because there are certain issues where people’s settled opinions are virtually unchangeable.  Despite the sound and the fury, our brains reflexively decide if the information and/or the source are “for us or against us” and then we reject or accept the input.

For some reason, controversies related to science seem to be somewhat more susceptible to this forensic immunity than others sorts of arguments. We are especially “sticky” about our positions on these topics. That is why we have the phrase “science deniers.” 

We don’t have such definitive put-downs for other kinds of arguers. We don’t call people who think budget deficits are less important than cutting taxes or spending programs “deficit deniers.” We don’t call atheists “god deniers.” 

Something about the scientific-ness of some issues, ironically and irrationally, seems to make us more mule-headed. The conceptual possibility of correct answers often makes us less persuadable, it seems.

We do, of course, have other, equally automatic ways of shutting out information or arguments that counter our settled beliefs – or of glomming on to supportive data. 

For example, we often say that someone we disagree with “just doesn’t get it.” That is a variant of simply saying, “Shut up.” The implication is that the person who “doesn’t get it” lacks the sensitivity, moral nuance or depth of  soul to “get it.” “It” is whatever it is I believe.  Guardians of the sensibility we call “political correctness” are especially fond of the “you just don’t get it” silencer.

Being a journalist, I am frequently shut up with a different locution, “You’re liberal.”  I am assumed to be a liberal because I labor in the news business, and I am therefore hopelessly biased, blinkered and a cog in mainstream media power elite.

Big bias

The subject of closed minds has been well studied if not perfectly understood. It seems an especially urgent topic now to many who think the internet is closing more minds than it opens, and to those who think political arguments, professional and amateur, have grown more boorish and futile.

We should all be able to recognize the basic cognitive dynamic in ourselves, if we’re honest. But it is hard to be honest. We all think we’re objective

Scholars use the terms “bias assimilation” or “confirmation bias” to describe the process where we cling to beliefs.

We have a long-held  “sticky” belief, a position we cling to.  Through an unconscious “confirmation bias” we gather up kernels of supporting evidence, like argumentative little squirrels. We also employ a “disconfirmation bias” to reject all contrary data and disagreeable sources; we literally don’t process counters because we dismiss them so quickly.

Once in a “sticky” position, we are virtually immune to new (so-called) factual information. Students of the topic call the idea that most people can be persuaded by well-presented facts the “information deficit fallacy.” Lots of times facts don’t persuade at all – and more facts don’t persuade even more! Balanced presentations (“on the one hand, on the other had”) actually tend to cement prior beliefs.

Interestingly, there appears to be a connection between the volume of a controversy in politics and the media and the depth of our stubbornness.

What matters greatly is our trust in the source – duh. Lefties trust MSNBC, righties trust Fox News.

The economist Cass Sunstein suggests that one of the few ways a Bias Bubble can be burst is when a trusted source takes a surprising position. If Jenny McCarthy, for example, were to declare that it has been proved that the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism, some science denier minds would change.

Your inner science-denier

The political arguments that lurk around science, as noted, have been especially recalcitrant.  But “who thinks what” is probably less predictable than you might imagine. By that I mean that there is less correlation between education, ideology and beliefs on these issues than you probably assume.

The Pew Research Center recently released a fascinating study that compared the views of scientists and the general public on the “science issues.”   On many issues, scientists had nearly unanimous agreement but the general public was wildly split.

For example, 88 per cent of scientists surveyed think it’s safe to eat genetically modified food (GM), but only 37 per cent of us Muggles do. That’s a 51-point gap.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason to who trusts GM and who doesn’t. Women are less likely to think GM is safe than men. But it isn’t a red-blue issue.

The same is basically true about the safety of vaccines, which is often seen as left-right split.  Among scientists this is a settled issue, 86 per cent think childhood vaccinations should be mandatory; only 68 per cent of the general public concurs. That’s a science gap of 18 per cent.

The Pew study discovered, “There are no significant differences in views about this issue by education or race and ethnicity.” And there isn’t much difference between Democrats, Republicans and Independents.  Vaccine “science deniers” are as likely to live in blue Northern California as red Oklahoma.

That isn’t the case with climate change.  A full 86 per cent of scientists believe climate change is manmade; it isn’t a controversy in that world. Just 50 per cent of Americans believe it – and the divide is partisan. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to accept the consensus scientific view.

Based on the Pew study, I seem to be a “science denier” on at least one issue. I don’t particularly like the idea of genetically modified food. Admittedly, I have never given it more than 10 minutes thought and have never checked a food label for any GM markings. But it seems to be an opinion I have – for no good reason.

On all of the other issues where the scientists overwhelmingly agreed with each other, I agreed with them.

Perhaps my “confirmation bias” is that I yield too readily to expert opinion.

Or maybe it’s just the whooping cough.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Why this year's Obama budget actually matters]

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