Tag Archives: Ignorância

Conspiracy theories: how belief is rooted in evolution – not ignorance (The Conversation)

December 13, 2019 9.33am EST – original article

Mikael Klintman PhD, Professor, Lund University

Despite creative efforts to tackle it, belief in conspiracy theories, alternative facts and fake news show no sign of abating. This is clearly a huge problem, as seen when it comes to climate change, vaccines and expertise in general – with anti-scientific attitudes increasingly influencing politics.

So why can’t we stop such views from spreading? My opinion is that we have failed to understand their root causes, often assuming it is down to ignorance. But new research, published in my book, Knowledge Resistance: How We Avoid Insight from Others, shows that the capacity to ignore valid facts has most likely had adaptive value throughout human evolution. Therefore, this capacity is in our genes today. Ultimately, realising this is our best bet to tackle the problem.

So far, public intellectuals have roughly made two core arguments about our post-truth world. The physician Hans Rosling and the psychologist Steven Pinker argue it has come about due to deficits in facts and reasoned thinking – and can therefore be sufficiently tackled with education.

Meanwhile, Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and other behavioural economists have shown how the mere provision of more and better facts often lead already polarised groups to become even more polarised in their beliefs.

Tyler Merbler/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The conclusion of Thaler is that humans are deeply irrational, operating with harmful biases. The best way to tackle it is therefore nudging – tricking our irrational brains – for instance by changing measles vaccination from an opt-in to a less burdensome opt-out choice.

Such arguments have often resonated well with frustrated climate scientists, public health experts and agri-scientists (complaining about GMO-opposers). Still, their solutions clearly remain insufficient for dealing with a fact-resisting, polarised society.

Evolutionary pressures

In my comprehensive study, I interviewed numerous eminent academics at the University of Oxford, London School of Economics and King’s College London, about their views. They were experts on social, economic and evolutionary sciences. I analysed their comments in the context of the latest findings on topics raging from the origin of humanity, climate change and vaccination to religion and gender differences.

It became evident that much of knowledge resistance is better understood as a manifestation of social rationality. Essentially, humans are social animals; fitting into a group is what’s most important to us. Often, objective knowledge-seeking can help strengthen group bonding – such as when you prepare a well-researched action plan for your colleagues at work.

But when knowledge and group bonding don’t converge, we often prioritise fitting in over pursuing the most valid knowledge. In one large experiment, it turned out that both liberals and conservatives actively avoided having conversations with people of the other side on issues of drug policy, death penalty and gun ownership. This was the case even when they were offered a chance of winning money if they discussed with the other group. Avoiding the insights from opposing groups helped people dodge having to criticise the view of their own community.

Similarly, if your community strongly opposes what an overwhelming part of science concludes about vaccination or climate change, you often unconsciously prioritise avoiding getting into conflicts about it.

This is further backed up by research showing that the climate deniers who score the highest on scientific literacy tests are more confident than the average in that group that climate change isn’t happening – despite the evidence showing this is the case. And those among the climate concerned who score the highest on the same tests are more confident than the average in that group that climate change is happening.

This logic of prioritising the means that get us accepted and secured in a group we respect is deep. Those among the earliest humans who weren’t prepared to share the beliefs of their community ran the risk of being distrusted and even excluded.

And social exclusion was an enormous increased threat against survival – making them vulnerable to being killed by other groups, animals or by having no one to cooperate with. These early humans therefore had much lower chances of reproducing. It therefore seems fair to conclude that being prepared to resist knowledge and facts is an evolutionary, genetic adaptation of humans to the socially challenging life in hunter-gatherer societies.

Today, we are part of many groups and internet networks, to be sure, and can in some sense “shop around” for new alliances if our old groups don’t like us. Still, humanity today shares the same binary mindset and strong drive to avoid being socially excluded as our ancestors who only knew about a few groups. The groups we are part of also help shape our identity, which can make it hard to change groups. Individuals who change groups and opinions constantly may also be less trusted, even among their new peers.

In my research, I show how this matters when it comes to dealing with fact resistance. Ultimately, we need to take social aspects into account when communicating facts and arguments with various groups. This could be through using role models, new ways of framing problems, new rules and routines in our organisations and new types of scientific narratives that resonate with the intuitions and interests of more groups than our own.

There are no quick fixes, of course. But if climate change were reframed from the liberal/leftist moral perspective of the need for global fairness to conservative perspectives of respect for the authority of the father land, the sacredness of God’s creation and the individual’s right not to have their life project jeopardised by climate change, this might resonate better with conservatives.

If we take social factors into account, this would help us create new and more powerful ways to fight belief in conspiracy theories and fake news. I hope my approach will stimulate joint efforts of moving beyond disputes disguised as controversies over facts and into conversations about what often matters more deeply to us as social beings.

Climate Change in Trump’s Age of Ignorance (New York Times)

Stanford, Calif. — THE good news got pretty much drowned out this month: Yes, 2016 is on track to become the hottest year on record, but thankfully also the third year in a row to see relatively flat growth in global greenhouse gas emissions. With global economic growth on the order of 3 percent a year, we may well have turned a corner toward a sustainable climate economy.

The bad news, of course, is that the world’s wealthiest nation, home to many of the scholars scrambling to reverse global warming, has elected a new president with little or no interest in the topic. Or an active disinterest. Donald J. Trump is surrounding himself with advisers who are likely to do little to challenge his notion of climate change as a Chinese hoax. People like to think of us as living in an age of information, but a better descriptor might be “the age of ignorance.”

How did we get into this predicament? Why are we about to inaugurate the most anti-science administration in American history?

As a graduate student at Harvard in the 1970s and early 1980s, I was astonished to find how little concern there was for the beliefs of ordinary Americans. I was in the history of science department, where all the talk was of Einstein and Darwin and Newton, with the occasional glance at the “reception” of such ideas in the larger literate populace.

I had grown up in a small town in Texas, and later in Kansas City, where the people I knew often talked about nature and God’s glory and corruption and the good life. At Harvard, though, I was puzzled that my professors seemed to have little interest in people outside the vanguard, the kinds of people I had come from, many of whom were fundamentalist Christians, people of solid faith but often in desperate conditions. Why was there so little interest in what they thought or believed? That’s Point 1.

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Point 2: Early in my career as a historian, I was further bothered by how little attention was given to science as an instrument of popular deception. We like to think of science as the opposite of ignorance, the light that washes away the darkness, but there’s much more to that story.

Here my Harvard years were more illuminating. I got into a crowd of appropriately radicalized students, and started to better understand the place of science in the arc of human history. I learned about how science has not always been the saving grace we like to imagine; science gives rise as easily to nuclear bombs and bioweapons as to penicillin and the iPad. I taught for several years in the biology department, where I learned that cigarette makers had been giving millions of dollars to Harvard and other elite institutions to curry favor.

I also started understanding how science could be used as an instrument of deception — and to create or perpetuate ignorance. That is important, because while scholars were ignoring what Karl Marx dismissively called “the idiocy of rural life” (Point 1), tobacco and soft drink and oil companies facing taxation and regulation were busily disseminating mythologies about their products, to keep potential regulators at bay (Point 2).

The denialist conspiracy of the cigarette industry was crucial in this context, since science was one of the instruments used by Big Tobacco to carry out its denial (and distraction) campaign. Cigarette makers had met at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on Dec. 14, 1953, to plan a strategy to rebut the evidence that cigarettes were causing cancer and other maladies. The strategy was pure genius: The claim would be that it had not been “proved” that cigarettes really cause disease, so there was room for honest doubt. Cigarette makers promised to finance research to get to the truth, while privately acknowledging (in a notorious Brown & Williamson document from 1969) that “Doubt is our product.”

For decades thereafter, cigarette makers poured hundreds of millions of dollars into basic biomedical research, exploring things like genetic and viral or occupational causes of cancer — anything but tobacco. Research financed by the industry led to over 7,000 publications in peer-reviewed medical literature and 10 Nobel Prizes. Including consulting relationships, my research shows that at least 25 Nobel laureates have taken money from the cigarette industry over the past half-century. (Full disclosure: I’ve testified against that industry in dozens of tobacco trials.)

Now we know that many other industries have learned from Big Tobacco’s playbook. Physicians hired by the National Football League have questioned the evidence that concussions can cause brain disease, and soda sellers have financed research to deny that sugar causes obesity. And climate deniers have conducted a kind of scavenger hunt for oddities that appear to challenge the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists.

This latter fact might be little more than a historical quirk, were it not for the fact that we’ll soon have a president whose understanding of science is more like that of the people in the towns where I grew up than those scholars who taught me about Darwin and Einstein at Harvard.

We now live in a world where ignorance of a very dangerous sort is being deliberately manufactured, to protect certain kinds of unfettered corporate enterprise. The global climate catastrophe gets short shrift, largely because powerful fossil fuel producers still have enormous political clout, following decades-long campaigns to sow doubt about whether anthropogenic emissions are really causing planetary warming. Trust in science suffers, but also trust in government. And that is not an accident. Climate deniers are not so much anti-science as anti-regulation and anti-government.

Jeff Nesbit, in his recent book, “Poison Tea: How Big Oil and Big Tobacco Invented the Tea Party and Captured the G.O.P.,” documents how Big Tobacco joined with Big Oil in the early 1990s to create anti-tax front groups. These AstroTurf organizations waged a concerted effort to defend the unencumbered sale of cigarettes and petro-products. The breathtaking idea was to protect tobacco and oil from regulation and taxes by starting a movement that would combat all regulation and all taxes.

Part of the strategy, according to Mr. Nesbit, who worked for a group involved in the effort and witnessed firsthand the beginning of this devil’s dance, was to sow doubt by corrupting expertise, while simultaneously capturing the high ground of open-mindedness and even caution itself, with the deceptive mantra: “We need more research.” Much of the climate denial now embraced by people like Mr. Trump was first expressed in the disinformation campaigns of Big Oil — campaigns modeled closely on Big Tobacco’s strategies.

We sometimes hear that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, but a “repeat” is perhaps now the least of our worries. Judging purely from his transition team, Mr. Trump’s administration could be more hostile to modern science — and especially earth and environmental sciences — than any we have ever had. Whole agencies could go on the chopping block or face deliberate evisceration. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan may be in jeopardy, along with funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Grumblings can even be heard from Europe that if the Paris climate accord is abandoned, the United States may face carbon taxes on its export goods. Ignorance and its diabolic facilitator — the corruption of expertise — both have real-world costs that we ignore at our peril.