Conservatives Are More Likely to Believe Falsehoods If Told They Are False… And Why That Might Be Sensible Of Them

September 15, 2008

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone versed in psychology, but more and more research is supporting the idea that political falsehoods are effective: even if they are later exposed as false. Whether you be Democrat or Republican, the emotional effect of a compelling narrative or juicy smear seems to remain even if its decisively debunked. While we all seem to form knee-jerk attitudes initially because of certain claims, but we don’t base the attitude on the continued veracity claims: the attitude stands on its own with out without the survival of the supporting claims.

But in some cases, it’s even more bizarre than that. As political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discovered, conservatives are especially prone to a sort of backlash effect: being given evidence that a claim is false seems to make them more likely to believe it’s true:

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

Kevin Drum thinks that this effect may have something to do with the carefully celebrated disdain many conservatives have cultivated for experts and media sources in general, and there may be something to that. Drum also notes that the source of the refutation didn’t seem to help either: conservatives seem more likely to believe a politically convenient falsehood even if it’s FoxNews that’s trying to correct the misinformation.

Liberals will no doubt find this research as yet more evidence that their counterparts are indeed stubborn science-haters who prefer ideology to reality (conservatives may, ironically, respond by denying the science behind this study). But before we go whole-hog down that route, I can think of one major explanation for the results that Drum might have missed, and for obvious partisan reasons.

Simply put, this research might not be evidence of conservative pigheadedness: it could just as easily be taken as evidence of legitimate conservative cockiness in the face of consistently lousy critics. That is, it could be that, in the actual real-world experience of most conservatives over the past few decades, prominent “refutations” of ideologically pro-conservative claims really have turned out to be wrong a lot of the time. Perhaps even so much that encountering strong objections to such claims is itself a good statistical predictor of their veracity.

This isn’t necessarily a rational reaction on a case by case basis; it doesn’t have to be. Like any Pavlovian mechanism, what matters is simply its general effectiveness as an association over time and experience. A knee-jerk “backfire effect” response may not make conservatives look very good in a controlled situation in which the claim is already known to be wrong. But it might be a reaction that’s served conservatives pretty well in everyday political life.

Thus, what may be at work here is simply a difference in actual historical experience. Refutations of claims that liberals like may simply have turned out to be valid more often than the refutations of claims conservatives like. And because each group has had different experiences, they’ve developed different knee-jerk mechanisms for how they process a refutation of a politically convenient claim.

Of course, this explanation would require you to basically accept that, in practice, conservative claims really are right more often than liberal ones. Or, at least, that critics of core conservative claims tend to be a lot sloppier and untrustworthy than critics of liberal claims. As someone that leans towards the liberal side of things myself, my own knee-jerk reaction is to find such possibilities absurd: how could our “reality-based community” be less reliable than… than… them?!

The problem, of course, is that I’m obviously too biased to subjectively sum up such a broad and comprehensive balance sheet of overall trustworthiness. Nor can I think of any immediate way to test a partisan bias in “accuracy” empirically.

But I do know that it’s at least a possible explanation for the highly partisan nature of the “backfire effect” that the researchers observed; it’s one which I can’t, as a good social scientist, immediately discount just because I happen to get all worked up about McCain’s latest campaign ads.

And it is an intriguing thought in any case: that the individually irrational behavior of a certain group towards criticism could itself be evidence that their ideological red meat is generally more accurate in the face of criticism.

Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

July 29, 2008

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

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Wafer Desecrated: PZ Myers Makes Good on His Threat & More Besides

July 24, 2008

Well, for better, and probably for worse, PZ Myers has done as he promised and treated a communion wafer in a manner unbecoming of the sacred, all to definitively demonstrate that, indeed, he doesn’t think these things are sacred. For good measure, he trashed not only the wafer, but also some torn pages of the Koran, and even torn pages of Dawkins’ writings.

This is one of those odd situations in which I know what other people will likely think far better than I know what to think.

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When Theism Cannot Explain Anything (Origins Especially)

July 24, 2008

In having a bit of a debate with blogger Eric Kemp, we hit an impasse at which he declared that “God” is a sensible explanation for an otherwise presently inexplicable event (in this case, the nature and/or origin of the universe). It seems like as good a time as any to explore what I see as the intellectual impotence of theistic “explanations.”

Just what is it to explain something, anyhow? It is to come away with more information than you began. To have a set of distinct causes, effects, and overall processes, in place of what was once complete ignorance. It means being able to state what needs to be done for some event to happen: what specific capacities are necessary for something to do it.

To say that the standard theistic God has caused phenomenon X is essentially to say that it was done by a being that is hypothetically capable of doing anything. In short, it is a truly ingenious means of avoiding having to give any specific explanation for how X happens. No ignorance is dispelled.

Using God in this way is much like answering a multiple choice question by filling in every option, and then claiming that you have answered the question correctly. But while you are indeed sure to have filled in the correct bubble at some point in the process (unless of course, we’ve tricked you by simply not offerring the right answer there at all), your “answer” doesn’t actually tell you or anyone else which option was the correct one.

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James Carse: Yet Another Atheist Who Just Doesn’t Get Atheism

July 22, 2008

Yesterday, Salon featured an interview with James Carse, longtime Religious Studies director at NYU, covering his new book The Religious Case Against Belief.

Now, a lot of what Carse has to say about religion is interesting and engaging, if not always convincing. But when it comes to the now-standard near-content-free dismissal of the “New Atheists,” Carse falls flat:

In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that’s left out is the sense of religion that I’ve been talking about [i.e. being endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human]. Instead, it’s an attack on what’s essentially a belief system.

Well, pardon me sir, but duh. Carse acts as if Dawkins, Dennet, and all the rest are somehow honor-bound to a) care about Carse’s obscure religious mysticism b) oppose it as a matter of principle and yet c) fail to justify their opposition. But Dawkins, Harris, and Dennet explicitly say that Carse’s sort of “religion” is not the sense of the word “religious” that’s in their crosshairs.

In other words, they’re focused on a specific target. That’s a good thing, not a failing.

So the fact that Carse uses a far broader definition of “religion” than the New Atheists is no excuse for holding them to that broad definition, let alone then claiming that they sloppily miss the mark and that not all “religion” is susceptible to their critiques. Of course it isn’t.

And while Carse absolutely refuses the word, it’s pretty plain that he’s an atheist himself:

Salon: And yet, you’ve just told me that you yourself don’t believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

Carse: The difference, though, is that I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That’s a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.

I’ve got some bad news for Carse: if he actually sat down and read their books, he’d find that he’s got exactly that in common with them (Dawkins and Harris in particular)… plenty of atheists. You think I’m not stunned and humbled by the mystery of things? That not a single atheist ever walks about in wonder about the universe? These are mere childish stereotypes of atheism: the old equivocation that because we don’t believe in metaphysical souls that we don’t have soul, baby.

Now, Carse is welcome to think that his own critique of modern religion is “deeper and much more incisive,” but that’s clearly in part because he happens to be very interested in religion (nothing wrong with that), and wants people to get more out of it (good for him). In fact, I think there is plenty of synergy between his feelings and mine in regards to even liberal theologies not taking things far enough, not leaping full bore into the sort of poetic innovation that built their traditions in the first place.

But the New Atheists are specifically concerned primarily with the perniciousness of faith beliefs, and there’s simply nothing wrong with having that focus either. Outside of that focus, they really don’t have much beef with Carse or anyone else wandering around in his secularized state of agape. So why is he so eager to pick fights with them, when he seemingly can’t even be bothered to raise a single substantive criticism against their specific arguments, or a single substantive difference between their position and his?

The best he musters is to claim that the New Atheists have their own belief system to offer in place of religion: one that is just as dismissive of ignorance and mystery as religious dogma. But this is surely a cheap shot. All of the people he talks about have all written tons of material on science as a neverending, never-certain method, not a dogma. Carse is basically attacking people like Dennet for trying to explain things like consciousness and “free will” that Carse, perhaps, thinks should not be explained, but doing it under the guise of falsely accusing Dennet of arrogantly thinking that he can solve or answer every question. That’s just a low blow.

And then there’s clueless claims like this which make me wonder if he’s ever really thought about atheism much at all:

To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you’re not believing in. Therefore, if you don’t have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily…

This is like saying that to not be a platypus, you have to have a deep and well-developed understanding of platypi. Nonsense. To be an atheist, all you have to be clear about is that there is no concept close to or akin to ANY sort of God belief inside your head. You don’t have to know every possible deep insight into what a god might be to know that you’ve yet to happen upon a convincing reason to believe in God, period.

And Carse seems no different on this point anyway. His answer as to whether he believes God exists is “[Laugh] Frankly, no.” So if even Carse, supposedly deeply steeped in theistic understanding hasn’t found anything to convince him to believe (and Carse pretty much rejects the entire “belief claim” side of religion), why should atheists who don’t happen to be interested in religious studies in the first place worry their pretty little heads about it?

A lack of deep insight into theology is neither laudable nor contemptible, any more than a lack of deep insight into botany is necessarily a gaping hole in your life. You can’t appreciate or be interested in every single subject equally deeply, and everyone has their favorite subjects. Carse enjoys religion even without the belief claim side of it, and good for him. But without compelling, universally relevant belief claims at stake, and lacking much other than subjective appreciation, Carse hasn’t made any sort of case as to why atheists, or people in general, must care about appreciating the poetic side of religion.

Of course, I just so happen to have a taste for religious studies. And for all my carrying on over this particular point, Carse’s book sounds like one I’ll be adding to my already bulging reading list. I just wish people that celebrate the mysterious and unconventional sides of life would stop pushing such conventional and dogmatic slanders of non-belief.

Your Brain Makes Its Decisions Without You: More on Free Will and Identity

July 2, 2008

There’s little doubt that conscious experience is one of the most perplexing phenomenon that… well that it has ever encountered. Not only do we not know what our inner “observing” subject is, we don’t know how to even think about what it is. Why am “I” (whatever it is that’s experiencing anything at all) linked to not just to a body, but to a specific body? Why aren’t “I” someone else? Why is it “like” anything to be a human being, rather than our brains simply carrying out choice and action without any seeming internal passenger?

Philosophers and Theologians have long tried to lay claim to the mystery with concepts like “Soul” or “Free Will” that purport to explain conscious experience or the nature of willed choice, but their attempts have never delivered any actual tangible, additional insight into the phenomenon. Later attempts like “qualia” have only put more names to things we still do not understand. And perhaps it’s no surprise that these attempts have been so unproductive: their ultimate aim has always seemed less about increasing our knowledge, and more about a turf war over which school or ideology can assert exclusive right to this most precious of philosophical possessions.

But while there’s no guarantee that science can ever fully explain consciousness, there can also be no doubt that if you want to learn at least something about it, rather than merely discover new names for things you still don’t understand, neurologists have far more to offer than most traditional philosophers and theologians at this point. And, indeed, what science is revealing is far weirder than we could have ever imagined from any armchair.

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NRO’s Mary Eberstadt Pouts in the General Direction of Atheism

June 24, 2008

Thanks to Ed Brayton, I’ve recently been made aware of a rather sad spectacle. Apparently National Review scribe Mary Eberstadt has been laboring away in obscurity for the last month or so, penning what her editors seem to think is a clever take on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (in which a demon instructs his nephew in the business of inspiring human sin).

I’m not a fan of Lewis’ quaint, preening writing style to begin with, but at least the man gave off the air of erudition (even if he did indulge in embarrassing apologia like the “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” gambit). Eberstadt, on the other hand, very literally (perhaps even intentionally) writes like a gossipy teenage girl from the 80s gushing about Corey Haim. Except of course, that she employs hip-to-be-square terms like “BFF” and “Oh snap!”

Lewis’ Letters worked because he employed the creative conceit of professional demon tempters to expose and explore universal human failings… and, by amusing proxy, revealed how human beings could actually avoid the demonic designs on their souls. Screwtape, the narrative voice of the tale, was a master manipulator. It was a satire, to be sure, but Screwtape himself was not played as a fool: he was meant to illustrate precisely how dangerous sin and temptation could be.

Eberhardt, on the other hand, has no higher purpose than to first pretend to be an atheist then act as mindbogglingly stupid as possible. It’s the literary equivalent of a schoolyard “you’re all like this: duhhhhhh.”

Like Brayton, I feel compelled by my profession to dissect the sorry affair point by point, but I can’t quite bring myself to actually read more than a shuddering gasp at a time. What few coherent points she does appear to be making are either trivial straw men, endless harping on substance-free matters like “Brights,” or bringing up classic controversies to which she adds nothing new. So if anyone can please extract a coherent argument from this right-wing bestseller-to-be so that I can address it directly, I’d much appreciate the service.

And while I won’t have much credibility in saying so, I honestly don’t see any comic wit or incisive satire at work here. Maybe someone a little more patient than I can point some out. Because here’s an example of the sort of stuff you have to endlessly wade through in search of a point…

I’m not even sure why I still feel them myself, so long after my own Turn to atheism. It’s true that when my ex-boyfriend, Lobo, got stoned, there was nothing he liked better than opening all his Dad’s coffee-table books on Renaissance art and eyeballing the paintings and sculptures. And it’s true that this was one of the few things Lobo did that I enjoyed doing with him when I wasn’t stoned myself. That was before his Dad kicked him out and we moved to Portland, You know. I’m not saying Lobo was all bad, by the way. Just mostly. That’s what happens when You pick up Your boyfriend in rehab I guess!

Whooooaaa! Girlfriend went there!

And it just goes on and on like that: in this case, pages of that sort of stuff all essentially to make the single, exceedingly bland non-point that believers have made a lot of great art and that Sam Harris (a non-artist) hasn’t. Great. Thanks for the five minutes worth of literary agony.

I’m honestly embarrassed for her. If this is really a “serious work of Christian apologetics” then atheists have quite little to fear.

Christians often complain that atheist critiques of religion are simplistic and carelessly dismissive. But as Eberstadt aptly illustrates, atheists are a model of polite, interested commentary compared to how they are often treated in return.