When–And Why–Facts Don’t Matter

One of the abiding frustrations of contemporary life is the widespread resistance to facts–people’s rejection of probative evidence that X is true and Y (no matter how desirable) is not.

Perhaps I’ve just been paying closer attention as I’ve aged, but it certainly seems to me that the prevalence of disinformation and outright lies characterizing American political life has become a bigger problem ever since the appearance of Fox News and MAGA Republicanism.

We’re about to enter a two-year period where GOP whack jobs like Jim Jordan conduct fact-free (or at least, fact-distorted) Congressional “investigations” into everything from Hunter Biden’s laptop to Anthony Fauci.  Reports from this year’s Climate Summit remind us that we have yet to make many of the changes necessary to combat climate change–a delay attributable in part to the climate deniers who for years refused to accept what science (and the evidence of their eyes) was telling them. Anti-vaccine lunacy has been responsible for thousands of deaths.

Other examples are too numerous to list.

The problem is, our form of government owes its philosophical basis to the Enlightenment–and if the Enlightenment prioritized anything, it was empiricism–the search for and analysis of falsifiable evidence–as a critical method to understand the world we inhabit.

When public officials occupy different realities, governance becomes impossible.For that matter, if people resist believing what their senses  and investigations are telling them, the entire edifice of civilization crumbles.

In 2017, New Yorker article titled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” explored both the importance of separating fact from fiction, and the reasons contemporary humans seem to be incapable of doing so. The article began by describing studies conducted at Stanford that attempted to understand the stubborn staying power of people’s initial impressions. In the experiments, even total refutation of the subjects’ initial beliefs was insufficient to make them change their minds.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

How indeed?

In a book titled “The Enigma of Reason, ” a couple of cognitive scientists tried to answer that question. They pointed out that “reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.”

The basic argument is that human beings’ biggest advantage is our ability to coöperate.  Reason, they posit, “developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”

Think about it. If the capacity for reason developed to allow humans to generate sound judgments, it would be hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. After all, an inaccurate view of reality is a significant threat to survival. But here we are, and here–still–is confirmation bias. The authors concluded that it must have some adaptive function related to our “hypersociability,” and that it may actually have evolved to prevent us from getting screwed by other members of our group.

Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments…

Among the many, many issues our forebears didn’t worry about were the deterrent effects of capital punishment and the ideal attributes of a firefighter. Nor did they have to contend with fabricated studies, or fake news, or Twitter. It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us… the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”

The article goes on to describe two other books dealing with the ways we contemporary humans encounter–and dismiss– facts. (For one thing, we all believe we understand far more than we actually do–a deficit that becomes clear when we are asked for detailed information.) It’s a fascinating, albeit somewhat depressing, read.

Bottom line: For those of us who want public policies to be based on sound evidence and facts, the literature is not reassuring.

 

 

25 thoughts on “When–And Why–Facts Don’t Matter

  1. Wow,

    The scientist mentioned in this article, they might as well have started their own philosophical house! Their attempt at explaining reason, was fairly weak.

    Reason is an evolved trait? Evolved from what? Why would reason evolve in the first place?

    “Reason is the capacity of consciously applying logic by drawing conclusions from new or existing information, with the aim of seeking the truth.”

    Dogs and elephants, chimpanzees, lions, even certain birds use reason! So why would reason have to evolve? Why would it have to evolve in the human species from whatever the human species supposedly evolved from! I would suspect those two cognitive scientific geniuses are just trying to earn notoriety or maybe just a paycheck. If a cephalopod IE octopus can be one of the deepest thinkers on the planet or at least one of the best at reasoning, where does that leave humanity?

    Humanity really seems to have no use for reason, because to be reasonable you would have to be logical, and would it be illogical to embrace lies?

    A fact is really not hard to discern from fiction. A fact has a certain logic to it, it has a ring of truth. But when you have the manipulators and liars trying to obfuscate their actions and reasons for doing what they do and saying what they say, people embrace the willful ignorance of the liars! Alternate realities are not based on facts nor reason. But then you have humanity running behind questionable and obviously obfuscated and unreasonable conspiracies, all wrapped in a package called factual evidence.

    Folks love to be misled, because it’s easier for them to follow something that appeals to their ear rather than digging for the truth of the matter. The rise of influencers, points to the end of civilization. And that device that we all carry around and our pocket or purse, that little window to the world, brings all of that ignorance and all of the ignorant right into the palm of our hands.

    I remember when Sarah Palin arrived on the scene, and, she acquired quite a large group followers! And I remember an entire conservative talk show on the radio discussing her merits, her qualifications, all devolving into her panty lines! That they could actually see her panty lines and that was good enough for them. Rational thought? No, would a chimpanzee call that rational? I doubt it! What about an elephant? What about a raven? What about a cephalopod? Nah, no way, not really! White men? Absofreaking-lutely! If that’s evolving, if that’s a Tenet for evolution, well, you can have it! Because it has no ring of truth in it! It’s not based on reason!

    Proverbs 18:13 states, “when anyone replies to a matter before he hears the facts, it is foolish and humiliating.”

    There is zero evidence of knowledge and/or wisdom controlling anything that humanity does! Even now, with things rapidly disintegrating, a worldwide drought, looming severe famines on the immediate horizon would reason dictate something be done? Would reason dictate that these facts be recognized and acted upon with urgency? It should! But it is not!

    The nuclear clock is almost at midnight, the Earth is a cesspool of pollution, a hornet’s nest of violence and crime, a cauldron of conspiracies! And yet, we have inaction, we have paralyzation. We delude ourselves we lie to ourselves that humanity has a solution to its own problems, Mankind would be in better shape if he let the cephalopods run the show!

    Jeremiah 10:23 states, “oh Lord, I am conscious that a man’s way is not in himself; man has no power of guiding his steps.”

    Is that ridiculous? Empirical evidence proves that Jeremiah’s observation was not ridiculous at all!

  2. “Bottom line: For those of us who want public policies to be based on sound evidence and facts, the literature is not reassuring.”

    When and why literature is not the source of facts today; I have another check out for mail pickup to support SENATOR Warnock in George who, if you believe the polls, is virtually tied with Trump’s lying, cockhound, latest BFF, Herschel Walker. The number of girls or women he has impregnated and/or the number of abortions he has or has not paid for or demanded is old news. The latest news from Walker’s lips is that werewolves are stronger than zombies and he has chosen to be a werewolf; of course that was yesterday’s news. Today he is telling the world that SENATOR Warnock is responsible for ending viewing of that great TV sitcom, “All In The Family” which hasn’t been aired since before Warnock appeared as the saving factor of the United States Senate in his previous election.

    “When – And Why – Facts Don’t Matter” to me is the stack of political books which were published during Trump’s administration which provided “insider” facts about Trump and his cronies, that I have on my bookshelves only partially read. While reading the vital information from “those in the know”; my TV was airing worse actions by Trump, his cronies and his administration which I needed to know more than what was in the books about what he had done.

    “reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.” Will knowing this conclusion reached by those cognitive scientists help us today with Trump again – or still – hanging over our heads like that anvil over cartoon characters we are familiar with? “an inaccurate view of reality is a significant threat to survival” We need someone to explain “reason as an evolved trait” to understand why so many people are voting for an avowed werewolf who evidently misses that old sitcom “All In The Family”.

  3. Terry: I have been subscribing to The New Yorker since the 1970s, and I have never regretted renewing the subscription every time it runs out.

  4. I can remember hearing undergraduate students saying “we know how we must answer the test on evolution, but we know the truth” (Biblical truth obviously) at Mississippi State University, the “Flagship University” of the state. So much for rational thought. BTW, this was long before DJT came on the scene, or Palin for that matter. But then again the Rebel flag was still ensconced in the state flag.

  5. Even though John uses a book of religious tales, his conclusions about reason are better than that of the authors in The New Yorker. 😉

    Why would they trash Twitter when it’s merely a social media platform? It doesn’t produce anything.

    Let’s look at reason and science in today’s political realities. All we have to do is look at COP27, which just took place in Egypt – a country with a military dictatorship. The climate activists representing science were told they could assemble three blocks away to avoid disturbing the attendees. Greta Thunberg refused to go.

    The oil and gas lobby sent by petro states was the largest contingency assembled. The politicians stayed an extra day in Egypt, feasting on taxpayers’ money but accomplished nothing. #Nothing

    The rich countries polluting our planet told the poor countries suffering the consequences that we’ll assist them on a “case by case basis.”

    Why should we concern ourselves with facts when our “interests” are centered around money or profits?

    The oligarchy wants profits, and they want you to buy things. Period. 😉

    Why you all want to complicate things?

  6. Humans possess a much larger brain – in size – than other mammals. Their fact analysis, therefore, has many more neural pathways to follow. THAT is why the scientific method is such a marvelous “invention”. It requires the discipline of testing theories before accepting the hypothesis or “idea” as fact. If the outcomes from the test aren’t consistent, then the hypothesis is deemed “false”. But if there is a compelling argument, the test is the problem. Then, the varying parameters that must be tested are reexamined and a new test is created. Gravity is the perfect example. It works every time. But there is no test that proves the quantum problem of why mass has gravity.

    Humans evolved to follow the loudest voice in the cave. The group ceded their thinking to the strong leader, and if that leader was wrong, everyone suffered, or another, more aware leader emerged to de-throne the fallible leader. Sound familiar? We evolved to listen to “higher” authority. It’s why religion has such a strong hold on some people. They NEED to have a higher power, because they are uncertain of their own ability to reason things out. When a tragedy befalls a person, what do they do? They pray to an unproven entity for relief of their sorrow. Did that solve any problems? Did it give comfort?

    The charlatans like Rush Limbaugh, the Baker cabal, the wretches on Fox, and even back in the 1930s when anti-semitism was raging across the planet. In retrospect, it was all quite stupid, because there never was and still isn’t a shred of hard evidence – never mind a test – to affirm or confirm any of the lunacy coming from the talking heads.

  7. Dr Stan,

    Hope all is well!

    If a student can’t explain his reasons for belief or his reasons or her reasons for faith, then, they have no true belief or faith.

    Scripture absolutely doesn’t speak against natural selection, I mean it’s common sense right? Nowhere doesn’t say that that is an inappropriate thought if you are a believer in scripture. After all, it would stand to reason, animals would die out if their habitats were changed.

    Let’s just use humans for an example. If extremely short people, those with dwarfism or those who have other reasons for being extremely short, pygmies for an example possibly, if all of their food was higher than they could reach, and they had no ability to construct something to reach that food, those short folks would die out. But the taller ones, say in Africa the watusi’s or other tribes which were extremely tall, could reach that food. So that would be natural selection.

    Species go through cycles! Depending on the availability of sustenance or shelter. Those who have superior traits for a specific issue, they survive! That doesn’t prevent those others from being born, they are! But most of the time they die out. When circumstances change, the natural selection process changes. Sometimes it goes back to the way it was originally! The genetics don’t change it never becomes a new species, That’s the difference. Just like the earth being created in 6 days, six 24-hour days, and just like the dinosaurs running around with mankind, that’s never brought out in scripture, nowhere did it ever say that in scripture, but men have manipulated scripture to their own end.

    Rationality would give individuals better insight and discernment if they weren’t so irrational, lol!

  8. Scientists have learned so much over one lifetime about the details of how living organisms work and how what always seemed to be the miracle of life, when broken down into physics and chemistry, comes about. Much of it followed the “discovery” of DNA and the acceptance that it is a personal recipe book for the assembly of extremely large polymer molecules called proteins from about 20 building blocks called amino acids.

    One of the mysteries all of that knowledge solved was the physiology of the brain which turned out to be a truly massive network of interconnected nerve cells that could be “programmed” by what we each have experienced to remember the input from our five senses at key and not-so-key events in our lives. No “thinking” mechanism, just a huge remembering mechanism.

    I had a career designing electromechanical means to turn energy and matter into more useful forms in support of manufacturing processes, and what understanding that biology taught me is to appreciate what in my youth was called the “hand of God” in our creation. Talk about magnificence. Understanding how that truly enormous complexity happened by endless random trials in even more endless numbers of cells over billions of years followed by sorting of the trials that led to success from all that was tried brought us about was foundational to me.

    While some people may have learned all of that and much more and found it to be disappointing to be able to understand a “miracle”, it had the opposite effect on me. I have always struggled with miracles but am comfortable with knowledge.

    That’s a very long background for the point that humans are so much less than and so much more than what I understood as a child. We don’t think as I used to believe as much as remembering what has worked for us and against us, us being both as an individual and collectively from understanding the experiences of others like us.

    Can we be misled? Readily. Can we learn the truth? Absolutely. Can we distinguish between the two? Sometimes. Part of the reality we are part of is that some have been exposed to experiences in an order that prepared them slightly more or slightly less than others to assemble the puzzles of life. They are slightly better at sorting out the truth.

  9. “The basic argument is that human beings’ biggest advantage is our ability to coöperate. Reason, they posit, “developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”

    Therein lies a serious root cause of “today” and grim news for “tomorrow”. There is ample evidence that Millennials and Gens X, Y, Z are more and more focused on themselves, their “brand” and the the various bubbles (music, fashion, sports, etc.) they live in. Cooperation is hard, and hardest when the culture evolves away from “community”.

  10. The fact remains that the Enlightenment emerged from an environment of superstitious belief and its notions of empiricism and rationality went on to have a vast impact on our culture and on history in general. If it did so then, it can do so now.

    I suspect, however, that a bit of nostalgia is at work here. The Enlightenment was not so enlightening as we like to believe; and the present isn’t as benighted as it seems. I have no proof for this, but I’ll bet that the average person today is more rational, empirical, and well informed than your average person from most other times and places you’d care to name. That’s not to say we’re doing things well now, but more that I think things were worse in the past than we care to remember.

  11. Vernon; I would like to return to an earlier comment you posted here and have to ask about the possibility that this biological fact has any connection to our ability to reason. Humans are among the mammals classified as”deuterostomes”; characterized by anus forming before mouth during embryonic development?

  12. JoAnn,

    The only other group of animals in the category of deuterostomes are echinoderms, i.e., sea stars, sea urchins, etc. So, it actually doesn’t have anything to do with when the asshole forms. Taking that poor attempt at humor to another level (downward), Trump learned to be an asshole very early in his life. He just spent 75 years perfecting his craft.

    Every animal exhibits some sort of “reasoning” response, even if it’s just shying or jerking away from a threat, real or perceived. That is often attributed to instinct. They will also reason out where their next meal comes from, how to chase down prey, whether or not to accept a certain individual for mating, etc.

    We had a lovely German Shepard who found great joy in playing with one of my old tennis shoes. Often I would grab one end and we’d engage in a tug-of-war. Then, one day, I threw the rubber sole into a pail filled with water. Lady eyeballed it for about ten seconds and then plunged her entire head into the bucket to retrieve the shoe. She reasoned that the water was not a barrier.

    With humans, we reason in the abstract probably more than we do directly. We buy things on credit ASSUMING that we will receive our checks to cover the bill. The whole society has built that structure on reasoned risk of payment v. non-payment.

    The earliest hominids appear in the fossil record over 5 million years ago. Modern humans have been around for about 250,000 years only. Our biological evolution remains very slow compared to that of our social evolution. Once we discovered the concept of hoarding (Reasoning to stash food and water during hard times), we moved on to invent agriculture – more reasoned decisions to grow out own food on purpose. Thus, we moved away from hunting/gathering and toward economics when we grew more per tribe than the tribe could consume. At this point, humans moved away from the cave-dwelling, small tribes to larger communities of tribes. This all happened only about 10,000 years ago, so compared to our biology and the pace of biological evolution, this is lightning quick.

    In sum, we are still operating in these complex societies today with a biological “instinct” package that still lives in darkened caves. But instead of hoarding food and water, we now hoard money. THAT is also the underlying cause of what we call greed. Back then, it was survival behavior.

    I hope this helps.

  13. Enlightened from what, Doug? The Black Plague and Hundred Years War? Is, in the course of events, a horrid history a necessary precursor to an “Enlightenment,” since logic suggests that we must have something to be “enlightened” from? And are we in our evolving history today with our global/existential problems to a point where we are ripe for a “Re-Enlightenment” since the one we inherited isn’t working well these days?

    As translated into today’s political and economic world where the few dictate not only the distribution of global assets but the air we breathe and the water we drink on this heating orb, should our “Re-Enlightenment” include changes in the system(s) that allow this? Should capitalism as presently practiced by these few be abolished or drastically amended to introduce a system dedicated to the common good and an end to environmental malpractice?

    Do we have a choice? > Where is the master logician, Aristotle, when you need him?

  14. I’m not so sure about the “loafing around in the cave” guess…and that’s what it is, albeit an educated guess.
    According to Herman Pontzer, Ph.D., in his book “Burn….” about metabolism, and how human metabolism
    diverged from that fall the other great apes, one of the factors that allowed sapiens to survive this long, while the
    other hominins disappeared, was our reliance on sharing. In current day Hadza groups “Ze” or “share” is the
    rule.
    But, the idea that we did not evolve to parse, or seek, empirical evidence in our daily lives does ring true.
    Our ancestors needed to be able to seek out plain, quotidian, everyday, evidence about where, for instance,
    that wounded zebra, or eland, went; where was a good spot for digging for tubers…getting through the day
    without energy deficits, or being some other animals energy source.
    So, we wind up being vulnerable to seeing fairy tales as forms of reality, thing like Hannity, or Carlson, or Jim
    Jordan, speak
    truth!

  15. John ” The genetics don’t change. It never becomes a new species.” Wrong. Not sure whether you are arguing for creationism here or revealing that you know very little about evolution. If the former, you should take a few classes in biology. If the latter, you should take a few classes in biology.

  16. Instead of describing the ability to reason as an evolved trait, it would be more accurate to acknowledge that it is an evolving trait.
    As Vernon reminded us, our biological evolution is happening more slowly than our social and technological evolution. Thinking long term, the species Homo sapiens WILL become extinct. Either our descendants will all die out or they will evolve into something as different from us as we are from Homo erectus. Probably their ability to reason will be much better than ours and flaws such as gullibility and confirmation bias will be greatly reduced. In the meantime, we do what we can to improve the chance of that happening. It gives me hope to think of ourselves as a work in progress.

  17. John, I have been a member of the Episcopal (Anglican) church for several decades AKA the educated or thinking man’s church. We do not leave our brains or our reasoning at the church door. BTW, Darwin was Anglican and received high mass at his funeral. Since I have moved to the Philippines and my bride is Roman Catholic I am converting, we just will not tell the priest some of my beliefs. It will simply make life simpler.

  18. Sharon,

    Okay! Then since you know, explain it to me! Explain how genetics change to create new species? Explain how amino acids that form proteins had evolved by themselves? And then how amino acids and the amino acid chains, combine together to form simple and complex proteins of which there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands! Each one with the mathematic probability of almost infinity. I’ve spoken to Vern for a long long time, and, Vern and I have agreed to disagree. Nothing wrong with that! That’s what being a free moral agent is! But if you’re going to absolute me, then you better explain it! I have no problem explaining my point of view, so you explain yours! Not just saying because! Or, you’ve learned it in school or somebody told you. If you can’t explain The mechanical and biological probabilities of just a strand of DNA forming with all of its amino acids and proteins, and of course the different specialized bands of DNA, and of course how RNA evolved to complement DNA. After all you can’t have a living creature without the RNA to be able to interpret DNA and direct the organism into its appropriate usage. On top of everything else, fish, and fibians, reptiles, mammals, avians, have some DNA similarities but vast DNA differences. That’s why, birds cannot mate with lizards and reptiles cannot mate with amphibians, and of course humans can’t mate with horses or dogs or sheep! Even though humans have attempted that for a long long time!

    You can call it what you like, but there had to have been intelligent design involved, now that is the voice of reason… And let’s not forget Flora!

  19. Recently I was listening to a piece on NPR about the fear of public speaking. The theory was that our brains are hard wired to avoid confrontation in front of groups of people. In the recent evolutionary past standing up in front and confronting a group of people with differing ideas might lead to your death, or at a minimum being ostracized, was powerful incentive to keep your mouth shut.

    If that kind of stuff is hard wired into our brains, I can see why “just going with the flow” and ignoring reality might be the easiest path for a lot people.

  20. Sorg: Reasoning from the Bible. Smattering of knowledge about DNA. Intelligent Design!!!
    Smekens: Reasoning by fake conspiracy theories.
    Lightner: Thinks Christinanity resolves through reason.

    My thesis: Religious education damages reason. Occam’s Razor.

  21. John. I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to insult you. I am interested to know whether you believe in creationism as opposed to scientific explanations for biological diversity. If you and Vern have reached the point where you have agreed to disagree, I can see why you don’t want to repeat old debates.
    As for being absolutist, your statement that “there had to have been intelligent design involved” is about as absolutist as one can get.
    This certainly isn’t the forum for giving instruction in genetics and the mechanisms of evolution. You are free to advise me to read scripture. I feel free to advise you to read biology.
    I am not qualified to critique the Bible. I suggest that you are not qualified to critique biology. Besides, since you base your beliefs on faith instead of on verifiable evidence, there is no point in offering you evidence.

  22. I often find this topic very disturbing. I can understand a commitment to rationalism, scientific inquiry, and changing my mind in response to new evidence.

    But what if that same inquiry reveals that a substantial % of the population can not and will not ever have that ability?

    To what extent is the state then justified in forcing policies on their citizens, since the state knows better? This line of thinking seems to justify fascism.

    Well we know we don’t like fascism, so I guess we’ll just have to muddle through and try to convince those who will not or can not evaluate evidence. Does that even work? If the state does not employ force, does society fail?

    Can we solve an existential threat like climate change without employing fascist tactics?

    It seems to me like we end up falling on one side of the dilemma or the other. Either we commit to fascism because our cause is righteous, or we pick Democracy and engage in Sisyphean optimism like Doug above.

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