The science of not believing in science.

A brief excerpt:

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.

We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

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.

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. …

Modern science originated from an attempt to weed out such subjective lapses (…) Our individual responses to the conclusions that science reaches, however, are quite another matter. Ironically, in part because researchers employ so much nuance and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading and misinterpretation.

This article makes one wonder how rational one’s own beliefs is, or at least, it makes me want to be more vigilant about my own biases, or more Scientific. However the article suggests that our biases may affect the outcome of our reasoning no matter how hard we try to look… Food for thought.

lol >:D

That WAS brief, the article is 4 pages long. Well on the internet that is relative but, it was much, much longer than my “brief”. >:D

If I look at the issues mentioned, BoogieM, I wouldn’t be too concerned.

But being more vigilant and aware and revisiting out preconceptions and biases aren’t a bad thing either.

This is hardly news, so I’m a little taken aback that it seems to be reported as such. Neuroscientists and psychologists have been aware for many years already of the role of these and other factors that significantly shape our thinking.

Be that as it may, they are the reasons why peer review and expert consensus are of such cardinal importance in science. For the layperson, this translates into reading far and wide on any given topic if you wish to be sure that your thinking isn’t skewed by those factors.


That is probably my fault for a bad copy-pasta, the article states that these have been researched and the conclusions have been reached since the 1950’s. BUT I found the article cool because I’m not a Neuroscientist.

My own bias lies in actually believing (in) science. That could theoretically be problematic?

The short answer is, not if it’s real science. Science itself provides the tools for distinguishing the real thing from imitations. If a claim fails on any one or more of the stringent methodological criteria that science requires, the claim can be safely written off as tosh, pending more compelling arguments supporting it.

But you know all of this already, I suspect.

Still, don’t get fooled by the postmodernists who would seek to undermine the very basis of knowledge by calling epistemology into question. They have yet to give a coherent account of why science works so splendidly well. Equally, don’t worry too much about the abstract ruminations of philosophers who would use things like the induction problem as a starting point to knock science. They also have no explanation as to why it works. The best we can presently do is to take a utilitarian stance and observe that science does work.


Thanks mefiante, I have been delving into some of the philosophical threads over at ratscep and it truly wants to make me scream at times - some really intelligent people are saying some really dumb things - or it is so nebulous and vacuous that it simply makes no sense - or, of course, they are truly understanding it all better than I ever could.

But it does boil down to that for me, which is why I easily dismiss the navel gazing as so much time wasting.

Science, she works bitches :smiley:

Well, those kinds of inquiry certainly do have their place in the canon of human knowledge, too, because they deal with important foundational questions. The problem is that all too often they are used to attack science, rather than to strive towards a deeper understanding of how it works. The upshot is that we are beset by an interminable succession of uninformed dopes bleating loudly and nonsensically about “other ways of knowing” — which “other ways”, it will be noted, have yet to reveal to us anything of proper substance.

We believe in science because it works; science doesn’t work because we believe in it.

ETA: …and by its own rules, science itself would require that we reject it if it didn’t work.


isnt the point of religion, to huddle together and agree with each other, and anybody that disagrees gets ostracized.
and the point of science, is to disagree, and revolutionary ideas gets praised and investigated.

IMHO the point of science is to take a revolutionary idea and bash it repeatedly with a rock to see how much it bleeds. If it doesn’t bleed, it gets accepted, maybe even praised.

This goes back to dear old Descartes (the original sceptic) who realised that neither the senses nor intuition are to be relied upon without corroboration and verification. Trust nothing.

Cogito ergo sum.

BoogieMonster, it’s a decent analogy. Ideas that merely bleed because they’ve been bashed with a rock are actually fine. At least we know how much punishment they can take. (To paraphrase by way of an example: We still use Newtonian statics and dynamics in many situations even though we know they aren’t perfectly correct models.) It’s only when ideas haemorrhage to death or become so badly crippled that they are no longer useful. That’s when they are quietly put to sleep and cremated. (It’s usually at that point that the woo-woos try to adopt them.)


I’m going to reluctantly agree with that - from those threads I mentioned some sort of agreement was reached between navel gazers and those who find it, well navel gazing - it can teach us how to think, rather than what to think even though it may not have any other direct, practical implications.

As to other ways of knowing? I am very open to those who claim this to actually show me this is true. I have little hope that this will ever happen but surely stranger things have happened.

We still use Newtonian statics and dynamics in many situations even though we know they aren’t perfectly correct models.

I was a bit miff the other day when I read an article describing some experiment to measure a gravity effect never measured before, and the article summary was something like: “Experiment to test Newton’s gravity”. Surely that is incorrect.

It’s possibly a test for an obscure effect in Newtonian gravity (i.e. at low field strengths where the differences from General Relativity’s predictions are insignificant). Simple as it is, the inverse-square law of Newton has some intriguing mathematical properties that suggest odd measurable effects occurring in certain unusual configurations of masses and motions. Perhaps the best-known of these is that the n-body problem is inherently chaotic for n ≥ 3. However, I would need to see the article before I can make a more specific assessment.


Cool, I’ve dug it out again:

By the way, thank you Mefiante for always being willing and available for cool sciency questions like these.

Okay, it’s relatively straightforward. When the article speaks of “Newton’s gravity” it actually means gravity as described by General Relativity (GR). I suspect the writer chose the term “Newton’s gravity” because it’s an article targeted at a lay readership and very few non-specialists have a sufficient grasp of GR’s principles to appreciate what it says. Most people tend to think of gravity as a quasi-magical force that acts on something a bit like it were tied to the ground by billions of insubstantial but very stretchy rubber bands.

Newton himself was deeply troubled by gravity’s apparent action-at-a-distance because nobody was able to give a plausible explanation of how the force was mediated between gravitating bodies. That is, nobody had the faintest idea how gravity actually worked at the fundamental level. Nor did Newton’s gravitational law provide any clues. Einstein’s GR solved this long-standing puzzle. In essence, the presence of mass distorts (technically, “warps”) the spacetime around it and this warping affects how other bodies in its vicinity behave. Of course, those other bodies also warp the spacetime around themselves, similarly affecting yet other nearby bodies. The degree of spacetime warping depends principally on two factors, namely the mass of the body and the distance from its centre.

The underlying assumption in both Newton’s and Einstein’s models is that gravity is infinitely variable in its strength/range character, i.e. at a given range, gravity’s strength can vary continuously and any value is theoretically possible. The experiment described in the BBC article tests this assumption of perfect continuity. The results suggest that the assumption is wrong and that gravity is quantised in discrete (i.e. discontinuous) intensity packets. This is akin to electromagnetic effects that are mediated by photons whose energies can only come in certain distinct values. These phenomena seem to us continuous because of their submicroscopic granularity.

Perhaps a more familiar but less accurate analogy is the use of real (floating-point) numbers on a digital computer. The three standard floating-point types consist of 32, 64 or 80 bits. Since they consist of a finite number of bits, they can only represent a finite number of values, whereas the real numbers of arithmetic are uncountably infinite, meaning that there exist infinitely many non-equal real numbers between any two non-equal ones. There are thus infinitely many floating-point values that a digital computer cannot represent 100% accurately, and those numbers are disallowed in the “digital universe” (so to speak), just as certain photon energy values are disallowed in our universe.

(I quite enjoy explaining this stuff to an interested and intelligent audience, so no thanks are necessary.)


Uhm, yeah, they failed spectacularly then. You just explained it much more succintly and understandably.