Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Of Opt Outs and Belief Systems

Chris Mooney examines “The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science” in Mother Jones.  Mooney illustrates that people who hold strong views on a subject whether it be climate change, creationism, the existence of WMD in Iraq prior to the Gulf War, or vaccine-autism link will refuse to change their minds when confronted with conclusive evidence that opposes their belief.  Others use Mooney’s article to show how “Truthers, Triggers, Birthers” have trouble accepting facts that confront their preferred conspiracy theory.  All of these examples reveal “. . . . head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.”  Later in his article, Mooney writes that people resist “correction in a variety of ways, either by coming up with counterarguments or by simply being unmovable.”  He uses the following example:
Interviewer: [T]he September 11 Commission found no link between Saddam and 9/11, and this is what President Bush said. Do you have any comments on either of those?
Respondent: Well, I bet they say that the Commission didn't have any proof of it but I guess we still can have our opinions and feel that way even though they say that.
The responses to the Yankton School Districts proposed opt out seem to parallel Mooney’s findings.  For example, twenty-two positions have been cut, but this letter to editor in the Yankton Press & Dakotan asserts, “The kids will still get a quality education and most of the teachers that were laid off will be called back regardless of how this vote turns out. I believe that anyone who tells you otherwise is just flat out wrong.”
There seems to be little difference between the letter writer’s assertion and Mooney’s example of a person who clung to the belief that Saddam possessed WMD.
This letter writer quotes the YSD Opt Out FAQ page about the administration building and other capital outlay expenditures before concluding, “What does building a new bus barn, shop and administration building have to do with handicap accessibility? Honestly, we voters of this school district are much too bright to fall for this nonsense.”  This letter seems to blend resistance with a hint of a small conspiracy theory; school officials are deliberately lying about previous building expenditures.  Writing in Slate, David Weigel asserts,
. . . . modern-day political conspiracy theories may actually be comforting: They assume that our political leaders are hyper-competent. They've developed, then covered up, Rube Goldberg designs to get what they want and maintain their power. This is no small achievement. If, on the other hand, the conspiracy theorists are wrong, well, that means the world is random, and the people who wield power or influence can screw up like everyone else. No one wants to believe that.
Mooney also finds that when “we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing.”  That may be the case with this correspondent who claims,
This opt-out is not $4.2 million; it is $42 million. I do not care how much they scream they won’t use it all; I have my doubts. I have yet to see any government or quasi-government agency turn down money. . . . .
I believe if the School Board would have come out and said, “We are taking a big hit, lets do a $1.5-2 million opt-out for 2 to 3 years to get over the hump,” no one would have blinked an eye. But $42 million?
Near the end of the article, Mooney writes,
The upshot: All we can currently bank on is the fact that we all have blinders in some situations. The question then becomes: What can be done to counteract human nature itself?
We all have blinders in some situations. The question then becomes: What can be done to counteract human nature?  Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.
Mooney concludes, “In other words, paradoxically, you don't lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”
Therein lies the rub.  How does one enunciate a value that doesn’t elicit “a defensive, emotional response”?  The situation is charged with phrases like “emotional blackmail” and “detention-room administrators” and the ever popular “for the kids.”  All concerned are appealing to values, so it’s hard to see how the facts will ever have a fighting chance.

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