Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Science in our Hearts

I recently read an article that really helped make sense for me out of a phenomenon I've seen all around me recently. I think of it as the hallmark of internet-based discussion: people with opposing positions on a topic can read the same fact-packed article on that topic and come to opposing conclusions about the validity of the facts it contains. It happened with me and some of my friends about the Planned Parenthood "sting" videos that came out in late January this year. When i heard about the videos, I immediately connected them in my mind to the ACORN videos that were used to shutter the voter-registration organization. After a detailed investigation of the video, it was shown to have been edited to smear ACORN, which was later exonerated. So I assumed that this Planned Parenthood video was more of the same. People with an anti-Planned Parenthood bias assumed it was representative of business as usual at Planned Parenthood. At the end of the day, I was pleased that the one clinic manager was fired, as it appears she acted heinously and inappropriately, and that Planned Parenthood reported what it thought might be a sex-trafficking ring to federal authorities for investigation. At the end of the same day, my friends thought it wasn't enough to fire the one clinic manager, because they took her not as an outlier, but as a representative example of the group. They also thought that the report to the FBI came AFTER the sting video was released, as a defensive move, and not as one motivated by actual concern for the health of potential victims of sex trafficking. We were all reading the same articles, we all saw the same events unfolding. It reinforced my belief that I can trust Planned Parenthood (most of the time) to do the right thing. It reinforced their beliefs that they cannot trust Planned Parenthood (most of the time) to do the right thing.

It turns out that that's the way the human mind is programmed to work. According to the article, "It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts." And that, my friends, is the heart and soul of internet-based discussions, comment wars, flame wars, and bulletin boards. Once you've established that you disagree with someone, they can say anything they want, and you're unlikely to listen to any of it, except to rationalize why it's wrong, to refute their facts, and to question the validity of their sources. It turns out that the well-educated are even more susceptible to this. Those who don't know much about a topic, but have strong feelings about it anyway, tend to be slightly more amenable to changing their minds when presented with facts about the topic. Those who know a lot already tend to use their education to pick apart the science, even when the science is good.

The article is full of fascinating examples of how and why exactly this stuff happens, from the Iraq/Al Qaeda link to the Vaccines/Autism link, and especially regarding climate change. It turns out that if you want someone to change their mind on a topic, you not only have to approach them with facts, but you have to present the facts wrapped in values that person already holds.


cbeck said...

All I have to say to that is, "Amen".

Out of the several hundred arguments I have watched unfold on various mailing lists, I don't think I have ever observed a single person's opinion swayed if they weren't on the fence to begin with. It has never made an ounce of difference how well reasoned the counter argument is.

aka the Mom said...

I think it also comes down to how you view the things which go on at Planned Parenthood.

If you see their employees as medical professionals, a group pretty universally trusted in our society, then it is hard to imaging their intentionally harming anyone.

If you view them as murders it is not hard to see them as capable of all kinds of other atrocities. If someone would make their living killing innocent children, then it isn't a big stretch to imagine them as liars as well.

St Thomas Aquinas said that you couldn't have a serious discussion with someone about anything unless you first agreed on the existence of God. He thought that everything else flowed so naturally from that premise that without it there were no common grounds for dialogue.

It's the same thing with the PLanned Parenthood and abortion debates. The discussion can go no further until it is definitively decided whether or not there is a baby. Without that basic agreement, the discussion is pointless as you are not having the same discussion. For one to argue the inviolability of a woman's right to her own body is not to same argument as every human being has a basic right to life.

Just my $.02

Thalassa said...

i think that's the point exactly... if one person believes in their heart that a baby is human from the instant of conception, and the other person does not, it doesn't matter what facts either side brings to bear. the more well-educated the listener is, the more well-reasoned their counterarguments will be, but they will simply continue making counterarguments until both parties wear themselves out.

DiscoveringMyBeliefs said...

Very interesting post.

Definitely made me think considering I'm quite the conspiracy theorist.

It Is What It Is said...

I popped over here by way of your comment to my blog (thank you for that, BTW) and read this particular post with interest.

As to your comment re: is a baby a human at the point of conception, the argument isn't that (of course it is human, if conceived by the DNA of humans) but is that mass of human cells LIFE at conception or thereafter and at what point thereafter. Even beyond that, does every life that is merely conceived have an inalienable right to live.

I didn't so much want to argue with you but to correct the word choice (as that in itself is sometimes the very basis of discord). I wholeheartedly agree that those who tend to believe A will continue to believe A even in the face of refuting facts from B and people who believe B will continue to believe B even in the face of refuting facts from A.

My caveat to that is that educated people tend to be able to apply a test of reasonableness to facts that fly in the face of their particular argument and may at least consider the alternative view regardless of whether it sways their opinion of it.

I look forward to reading more from you.

Thalassa said...

Thanks for your comment! Of course, you're absolutely right about the "human" vs. "Life" wording. I think the 'reasonableness' filter you mention is still subject to belief bias, but I have led a woman to change a belief by presenting good evidence, so I know it's possible. As cbeck said, though, I tend to think the woman in question was not deeply committed to the belief, or she would not have been persuaded.