Flying from Facts

Why don’t facts matter in policy debates? It’s not that people don’t invest a great deal of time and effort in acquiring them, analyzing them, and using them to buttress arguments, but at the end of the day facts don’t make as much difference as they should. Scientific American offers a terse explanation:

As public debate rages about issues like immunization, Obamacare, and same-sex marriage, many people try to use science to bolster their arguments. And since it’s becoming easier to test and establish facts—whether in physics, psychology, or policy—many have wondered why bias and polarization have not been defeated. When people are confronted with facts, such as the well-established safety of immunization, why do these facts seem to have so little effect?

The research that SciAm cites shows that people will simply change their justifications for their policy and personal preferences if the facts don’t support their pre-existing inclinations. If they think vaccinations cause autism, they’re inclined to do two things when confronted by scientific information – facts – that don’t line up with their beliefs: first, they’ll dispute the facts, and if that’s hopeless they tend to retreat into “non-testable” rationalizations, such as fear of Big Pharma or a belief in a vast conspiracy that makes facts irrelevant.

In Internet policy, for example, the revelation that one approach to network management is more useful and efficient than another one will often elicit statements of preference for the inferior approach that aren’t really testable. This is often “even though X is better than Y today (according to your puny facts), the spirit of innovation is energized by Y so I like it better.” Because this is faith-based, non-testable belief, it effectively ends the argument. We also call this flight from facts “confirmation bias”.

So what do we do about it?

The SciAm researchers make an audacious claim:

So after examining the power of untestable beliefs, what have we learned about dealing with human psychology? We’ve learned that bias is a disease and to fight it we need a healthy treatment of facts and education.

Well I don’t know about that, but one thing is clear: school children (from kindergarten to graduate school) would benefit from cultivating the skill of recognizing flight from the facts. This isn’t as grandiose as teaching “critical thinking skills” that often don’t really help, it’s quite simply teaching children to argue with facts and to recognize flight from facts.

This could be a fun carpool game: open a subject, ask the kids to argue their sides, and award a prize to the last debater standing who uses nothing but facts to make his or her point.

All it will take is three or four generations of kids taught diligently to recognize the old-fashioned Platonic distinction between opinion and True Knowledge to make a difference.

Enjoy your weekend.