22 June, 2006

Sidebar: Changing our Minds

Michael Shermer is a man of strong atheistic convictions. I appreciate and respect that. He is brilliant, but even beyond brilliancy he thinks clearly and clarity is a treasure. Of course, some of his stuff can be hard to read, since he takes Christianity on by name, and pretty aggressively, but that's OK with me. I enjoy his piece every month, and usually learn quite a bit from it.

In his latest Skeptic article for Scientific American, Shermer talks about what it takes to change our minds. (The article will be available at the supplied links about a month from now, I think. They keep their site intentionally behind the paper version for obvious if misguided reasons.)

It is an article about "Confirmation Bias".

[Before I go any further, I am not writing this because I am unhappy with anyone who might not have changed their minds on any subject due to this blog or on any other blog. :-) I am delighted with everyone's comments and input here and everywhere else I frequent. I just want to talk about why we don't change our minds.]

Confirmation Bias is the habit of the human mind to seek and retain facts that confirm what we already believe, and to explain away facts that unsettle that belief. I am a Calvinist, so verses that are clearly anti-Calvinist get the "what he really means is..." treatment from me. We all do this, and I think most of us know that we do it. What we don't know is why we do it.

Shermer's article recounts a scientific experiment that measured the brains of 10 or 20 avid political junkies - half Republican, half Democratic. Both groups were exposed to Bush and Kerry making erroneous statements. The results were as expected. Each agreed with his man, and rejected the other. Boring.

The "man bites dog" part of the story was what the instruments connected to their brains found.
As these junkies listened to their hero and enemy speak, and as they objectively analyzed their gaffs the logical portion of their brains stayed dormant. It was three other systems that were lighting up like Christmas trees. The emotional, conflict resolution, and moral judgement portions were firing on all cylinders. As they logically analyzed the arguments, they never employed logic. They were not deciding between facts, but between 1) feelings, 2) fighting, and 3) whether changing their minds would be immoral.

Doggone, but I recognize those feelings!

Even more, once they reached a conclusion that made them comfortable, their pleasure/reward brain center lit up. They got happy juice from their own brains for confirming what they already believed!

I'm not saying this is something broken in us. God made us this way. I would bet we were this way before the fall, and that we will be this way after the redemption of all things. Confirmation Bias is a good psychological strategy. It keeps you from having to rehash all your beliefs every time some huckster comes along with a good sales pitch. Once you have a truth in your heart, it is going to take some genuine force to get you to abandon it. Confirmation Bias will keep us from following every whim of doctrine.

Still, we are not right about everything, so we need to think about how our minds should change. One thing I note is that the closer we get to the truth, the harder it is for us to make further changes.

Sure, if we believe that God hates poor people, it's easy enough for the facts to overcome our Confirmation Bias. But when you get to things like Calvinism versus Arminianism versus "The Unnamed Truth," you can see how hard a time simple facts can have. Everyone believes a portion of the opponent's arguments, but redefines them by the smallest degree - and the argument is lost.

So, what do we do about it?

It's a little too late for me to give my opinion on that tonight, but I'll hang the question out here for a day or two and look forward to everyone's ideas.

For now, I have to go pay some bills. See ya'll tomorrow!

(Was this post broken last night?)

9 comments:

Milly said...

As they logically analyzed the arguments, they never employed logic. They were not deciding between facts, but between 1) feelings, 2) fighting, and 3) whether changing their minds would be immoral.


Too true the posts that take us from our comfort zone seem to be the ones that some try very hard to bend to what they believe. No matter that you asked that they sit back and relax.

Some things are easy for me to rethink so to speak. If I said “Cats are smart” you might say “I’ve seen some dumb ones” then give examples and I’d agree “Some are some aren’t.” If you said the “George W is the best president ever” I’d got to the wall fighting that one. (I have a head ache and that’s the only one I can come up with, don’t cast a rock) My mind is made up on that one. To lay out a pro W argument would only fuel my argument against. I’d smile the whole time because it does give me great enjoyment to argue politics in the right form with the right person. So I have no solution I’m just too durn old to a start a change’n. :-}

Cool post sir.

Maeghan said...

What it takes to change our minds - I am looking forward to reading that. I hope I'd remember to check in a month's time.

Confirmation Bias is a good psychological strategy. It keeps you from having to rehash all your beliefs every time some huckster comes along with a good sales pitch.

Interesting. And some people would have CB at at higher plane than some. I think mine is not too strong, at times I find myself quite easily swayed. And I'd never let my mom go near any salesman!

Yes, Milly's right, good post.

Andreia said...

Love it! Very interesting.

They say that you "learn" more effectively when you feel vividly. In other words, traumatic events and the like create huge neural pathways that make the lesson stick.

I wonder if it is possible that logic does not have that same amplitude-ability (myism) to create learning events. I mean logic is just not sexy enough to teach us but emotion,,, well, now that can ring all the right bells.

I dont have any idea if what I just wrote made any sense as I am so emotional (excited) about it. I do love these ideas and will munch on them for a while.

Andreia said...

Ugh! Am I going to have to subscribe?

Milly said...

Yes, the post broke last night. I hate to say that it was about midnight (Why was I still awake?) I wanted to reread before I went to shower. It is hot in Oklahoma and our AC at work is as the inspector said ****** . Actually no one repeated the word. Milly smelled pretty. (Yep, I just made it about me again :-)

Kansas Bob said...

Nice post codepoke. Thanks for the explanation of Confirmation Bias ... I think that I once held a PHD in CB :)

As I am getting older I am discovering that I am caring less about the "facts" ... note the quotes. I guess it is because the things that I considered "facts" in my fundamentalist youth turned me into a rigid judgmental unloving person. I think that it easier for us to debate predestination that it is world hunger ... maybe it is because we can actually do something about the latter "fact" but choose not to.

codepoke said...

I think that it easier for us to debate predestination that it is world hunger

Much.

Keep preaching it. That's why I want to attach the church back to geography.

Right now the church is attached to doctrine, so we drive past people. If we were more attached to the neighborhood around us, we would be more attached to the people in it.

I don't excessively care about world hunger, but I sure wish I could do more about neighborhood loneliness.

John said...

Having spent most of my life as an atheist, I can still think like one easily.

One of the lessons of that time is that attempting to argue one's way to God is futile. It involves countless logical fallacies and makes for poor evangelism.

I don't argue with atheists. I don't try to prove that the Bible is true or that Christianity is valid. Sun-Tzu said (my paraphase) "Never fight a battle that you know that you're going to lose." So I don't argue. I just witness.

codepoke said...

Good words, John. I will try to remember them at the right time. :-)

What about other believers? This post was really written with other believers and slight variations of doctrine in mind.