Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Do So Many People Disagree with Me?

I have spent some time since Trump's inauguration following the news about his activities as president so far, what he has done and said. And I have divided my time watching the reporting of his antics between CNN and Fox News almost equally, with a healthy dose of CBS and NBC mixed in. Of all those sources, the broadcast networks, CBS and NBC seem not to dwell on the more polarizing aspects of his presidency. They report them but don't dwell for long on them. The big takeaway for me comes from the different emphases CNN and Fox News place on their respective reporting of Trump as president.

I don't watch the evening punditry on Fox News because I know for sure how it goes. There is nothing at all fair and balanced about the Hannity show. CNN seems to be closer to what is reported on the broadcast networks but it tends to dig a little deeper, since it is a 24-hour news network. I don't watch MSNBC because for some reason Comcast puts it in a higher tier that I don't subscribe to.

What I have come away with after a week of Trump as president is a clearer understanding of why some people continue to stick with Trump despite some really outrageous things he has said and done since being elected. The bottom line is that Fox reports on the same stories as do the other networks, but they don't report the entire story. CNN is guilty of the same thing. For example, on Fox News, there's the story about Trump's threat to sanctuary cities to withhold federal funding if they continue to shelter their undocumented immigrants. Fox asks its viewers, "What's wrong with that?" Then it goes on to list crimes committed by these undocumented immigrants in various cities. Trump just wants to protect Americans. Bill O'Reilly (yes, he's an evening pundit - so sue me) and others get this puzzled look on their faces and wonder out loud how liberals can possibly want sanctuary cities to protect this sort of criminal element. And if this type of reporting is all I ever saw, I would probably be a Trump supporter, too.

But there is, of course, more to the story. There is the human aspect. City governments know that the vast, vast majority of these undocumented immigrants are a contributing part of their workforce. And they know that the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought here by their families didn't have a choice in being here. Most of them grew up in America and, except for their place of birth, are just as much American as Trump. These people need protecting from the long arm of the federal government.

It strikes me as odd that the federal government wants states to decide about education policy or about whether to grant women the right to choose to have an abortion. But when it comes to things like rounding up DREAMers or even lately threatening federal action if local officials (Chicago) don't clean up their act, it's ok to force federal action on local governments.

I think what all news consumers should do as much as time will permit is to watch the news from multiple sources in order to get a fuller picture of what is really going on in the world and how this news affects average Americans. The same stories are reported on all networks, but the emphasis is almost always different. I think people have gotten used to tuning in to only the news channels that reflect the opinion they already hold, and thus their worldview is strengthened. But the country is severely polarized. And there are two sides (at least) to every issue. It wouldn't hurt if more people were open to the opposing views. That can start by forcing oneself to watch the news channel you hate more often. And it would also help if all of us would spend more time reading and watching news from more sources that don't report news with a slant but only report the actual facts, even if those facts have been analyzed. BBC News and NPR come to mind. It might not change your worldview, because people clearly resist changing their worldviews, but at least it will enhance your understanding of why so many people disagree with you on the issues.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Why do Those Who Don't Understand Science Attack It?

Evolution is "only a theory." If we evolved from monkeys then why are there still monkeys? The climate may or may not be changing but if it is it's not the fault of humans. How can there be global warming when we're having such a cold winter? I am convinced that vaccines can cause autism. Gluten is unhealthy for a lot of people to eat.

I have heard the above statements, and many more like them, over and over for many years. The drumbeat doesn't seem to be waning at all as the body of evidence continues to grow that should debunk every claim of the science deniers. But why should that be so? Why do people who are otherwise mature, intelligent adults continue to deny the evidence in front of them? Why do so many people deny science?

First, let's start with a definition of science to see what it is they are denying. Science is actually two things: 1) Science is a methodology used to discover, through the use of empirical data, reasoning, experimentation, and logic, how various facets of nature work, and what predictions can be made by applying the discoveries to new situations. 2) Science is also the body of knowledge obtained from such methods and discoveries.

Most science deniers don't have a big problem with the first definition. But if those scientific methods lead to discoveries that conflict with their worldview or religious beliefs, then we have a problem. People, even smart people, have gathered throughout their lives personal data and experiences that have led them to formulate a set of beliefs. Many of these beliefs have been drilled into their heads by their parents, pastors, relatives, and peers. Those beliefs form their worldview - a mindset that governs their perspective on such things as politics, religion, and even their personal philosophy of life. Most of the time when new facts are presented they are accepted without problem because the new information does not conflict in a major way with a person's worldview. If you had always understood that matter exists in three states - solid, liquid, and gas - because that's what you learned in school and it conforms with your observations, you might be skeptical if someone tells you that there are actually four states of matter. But if that person then defines plasma to you and gives you examples of where you might find plasma, you won't have much trouble assimilating that new information. It hasn't altered your worldview tremendously.

On the other hand, if you grew up believing that God created the world in six literal days and that every living species on the planet was created by God personally, then any new knowledge that tells you that that belief isn't true becomes problematic for you to assimilate. That's partly because it represents a major change in your understanding of how life got here. But more importantly, it injects uncertainty into your view of what happens to your immortal soul when your life on Earth ends. For some people, it takes a leap of faith too big to make; never mind that science is not based on faith.

The actual term for a person's feeling of intense uneasiness when confronted with new information that contradicts his established worldview is cognitive dissonance. This generally elicits behaviors that tend to undermine and reject the conflicting evidence, leading to cognitive dissonance reduction. The mental uneasiness is sometimes so great that facts and evidence no longer really matter. Something must be wrong with the way the evidence was obtained or interpreted, because it just can't be true. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance is so great that it actually leads to a hardening or firming up of the already-held worldview. This is one reason why after a tragedy the faith people have in their personal god is increased.

Another very strong influencer of people's wrongly-held beliefs is anecdotal evidence. Since anecdotal evidence seems rational and since it is usually quite easy to understand, it leads to widely-held beliefs that are scientifically unfounded. Remember, in the definition of science, I said that science makes discoveries using empirical evidence, not anecdotal evidence. Empirical evidence is the type of evidence that can be measured and repeated. The earth's average temperature is rising. That can be measured independently by climatology labs all over the world. Caron dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing. The evidence for this comes from the direct measurement of CO2 by labs in many countries. Carbon dioxide gas traps heat given off by the earth. The evidence from this comes from experiments that directly measure the temperature of the air above a heat source in a controlled environment where CO2 has been elevated compared to an environment where it has not. The logical conclusion would be that the earth's temperature, on average, will rise and fall as a function of the amount of CO2 present. Of course there are other factors but you get the idea of how a hypothesis in science is created.

Anecdotal evidence doesn't work this way. There are no measurements and no experiments. Anecdotal evidence comes only from the stories, or anecdotes, that people tell based on their own perceptions or the perceptions others have related to them. For example, "I've personally noticed that the winters here have been getting colder over the past few years. My grandfather told me that he remembers often going to school in December wearing only a t-shirt and jeans. My kids always require a coat, or at least a jacket in the winter. Therefore, global warming must be a hoax."

That sort of evidence does not pass scientific muster and cannot be used to make accurate predictions about what is likely to happen in the future. Being able to throw a snowball in the winter does not mean that global warming isn't real. The fact that you have heard of more than one child developing autism after having a vaccine doesn't mean that vaccines cause autism. The fact that you and your friend got sick after eating a gluten-laced piece of cake doesn't mean that gluten is a bad part of your diet. Just because you know of people who get headaches every time they drink a diet pop doesn't mean that sugar substitutes cause headaches.

Empirical evidence that has been gathered in controlled experiments always indicate that the anecdotal evidence against climate change, gluten, and vaccines is completely erroneous. More than a century of empirical evidence gathered about evolution supports the conclusion that life on earth got here through the process of evolution by natural selection and completely debunks the notion it arrived all at once through the action of special creation.

If you believe in special creation or the detrimental effects of gluten or vaccines, then when you are confronted with loads of empirical evidence that debunk those beliefs, your cognitive dissonance reduction behaviors kick in and you start denying the hell out of the real science. And, like kicking the smoking habit or losing weight, it's very hard to stop the denying. But just like those other bad habits, stopping the denial will turn you into a better, more informed, and less angry person. Give it a try.