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Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science

How do we react when we encounter ideas that contradict our deepest beliefs? This question is the topic of an article in Mother Jones entitled "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science." Science journalist Chris Mooney, a veteran of the contemporary climate change wars, presents an overview of recent findings from the natural and social sciences. Even though the article (overtly) reflects Mooney's political leanings, it also includes an exploration into the nature of knowing.

Mooney reviews recent findings by neuroscientists which suggest, using brain scans, that our emotions strongly influence our reasoning abilities, complicating the idea of pure rationality. These findings build upon the earlier works of psychologists, who have long recognized that cognitive biases—such as "confirmation bias," or the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs over information that refutes them—impact our reasoning. 

Mooney cites new studies, however, that demonstrate that combating confirmation bias may prove more difficult than previously thought. According to a study by Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan, presenting people with evidence contrary to their beliefs rarely leads them to change their beliefs. "In fact," Money writes, "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."

Mooney observes that humans have long displayed the inclination to engage with information that confirms their beliefs. He worries, however, that as technology allows us to more easily select the sources of information we consume, to cast our net into a sea of ideas that we predefine, we are giving up opportunities to encounter information contrary to our beliefs. This, he contends, presents a danger to the future of public discourse.

I don't buy into Mooney's premise about technology, at least not wholeheartedly. On the one hand, the Internet does allow individuals to create "walled gardens" in which they limit the types of people and ideas they encounter. I select my friends on Facebook and the feeds I subscribe to in Google Reader. On the other hand, the Internet allows people from across cultures, from around the world, to connect and learn from each other as never before. The development of Wikipedia entries about controversial topics (e.g. global warming) serves as a battleground for people of various ideological stripes and hints at the potential for the Internet to lead to sustained dialogue across cultural and political lines. And suggestion engines—like Google Fast Flip and StumbleUpon—may increase the likelihood that people encounter ideas with which they disagree

In the coming decades, I hope we see the emergence of more battlegrounds and fewer walled gardens online. But regardless of how the Internet develops, teachers have a special role to play in encouraring students to seek out a range of information online. As always, teachers have an obligation to expose students to a wide range of viewpoints while they sit in the classroom. But teachers also have an obligation to help students develop the desire and ability to explore ideas—even those that they may find antithetical to their beliefs—throughout their lives. This desire is the foundation of life-long learning, yet it may not, as science has demonstrated, come naturally. Nonetheless, its as important as ever to instill in our students.

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