Thursday, February 13, 2020

Do Facts Change Minds?

There’s nothing quite like the psycho world to keep you alert. Today’s post, a rather long one, addresses a question posed by Elizabeth Kolbert in a 2017 New Yorker article. The problem, which psycho theorists pretend to have discovered, is “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.”

Before plodding through the research, which contains both good and bad, let us raise a few obvious questions. To my knowledge, the researchers did not consider them.

First, once upon a time everyone believed that the earth was flat. After research discovered that the earth was round, most people changed their minds. Was this based on facts? If not, what caused this mind change? 

Second, yesterday Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa declared that she cannot wrap her mind around the fact that her husband and eldest daughter have died. We understand perfectly what she is saying. She is not saying that she does not know, for a fact, that they died in a helicopter crash. She is testifying to the fact that her mind, her life plan, her routines and her everyday activities were so thoroughly enmeshed with those of her husband and daughter that she cannot just switch off these habits of thought because she knows for a fact that they are no longer with her. 

This implies that minds can only change over time. 

Third, there are facts and there are facts. We know about cherry-picking facts. When you are trying to persuade someone to embrace, for instance, socialism, you select the facts that tend to support your argument and ignore the facts that discredit it. Why would  polemicists trot out cherry picked facts if they knew that facts do not change anyone’s mind? 

Fourth, on what authority should we accept a fact as a fact? Don’t we usually accept facts on someone’s authority. Lately, we have been told that science is the highest authority. And yet, aren’t scientists, especially social scientists, human beings? Don’t some of them have a political agenda? Aren’t they oblivious to facts that would tend to disprove their beliefs? If so, some of them refuse to change their minds, regardless of the facts. But, since facts threaten their beliefs, they tend to ignore certain facts. But, doesn’t this suggest that facts have the potential to change minds, only not the minds of people who are fanatics or zealots.

I raise these issues to emphasize, before going through the research, that thinking about some of the obvious objections would make the research more persuasive. After all, the researchers who are telling us that facts do not change our minds surely want us to accept their research as factual, and to change our minds.

The initial research, performed at Stanford more than two score years ago, concerns the ability of select undergraduates to identify suicide risk. That is, it asks young people who have no experience with suicidal individuals to discern, from reading a note, whether the person who wrote it really committed suicide. Some of the notes were left by people who committed suicide. Some were drawn up by the researchers.

Kolbert describes the exam:

In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.

Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.

So, this is not really about discerning facts, like the velocity of a projectile. It’s about self-judgment, the ability of college students, who presumably are being graded, to judge their own ability to differentiate real suicide notes from fake ones.

As it happened, the researchers who told the students that they were good or bad at the task were lying. The students were all just as good or just as bad at differentiating the notes.

So, the researchers told the students that they were neither very good nor very bad at judging suicide notes. But then, the researchers asked the students to guess how well or how poorly they had actually done on the test. Those who had initially been told that they got all the answers right usually judged that they had in fact done fairly well. Those who had been told that they had gotten the answers wrong judged that they had done worse than they had,

Kolbert reports:

The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well—significantly better than the average student—even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student—a conclusion that was equally unfounded.

Now, let’s see. The students did not change their minds when presented with the truth. And yet, ought we not to question this? After all, the students were told that the researchers were dishonest, that they had tricked them. Why should they have believed the researchers when they confessed their deceit? Why should the students have trusted the tricksters at all?

From this and many other experiments the researchers concluded that people are irrational and that they are led by their emotions or perhaps their beliefs.

Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational.

And yet, these results derive from experiments. Might we not also ask how it happens that irrational creatures make rational decisions? Or, do they? Can these studies also demonstrate that irrational people can make reasonable decisions? Should we forget about science and empirical reason because a few dopey grad students have produced an experiment that discredits their and our own rationality. And besides, don’t these studies ask us to accept as scientific fact that we cannot make decisions based on scientific fact? 

But, Kolbert is not finished. She shifts into a discussion of why we persist in thinking that we are rational beings. And she discovers that we have a good evolutionary reason to think rationally. Thus, that we are rational beings. This would appear to contradict the assertions that were supposedly proved by the research, but, no matter. 

Here she refers us to a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), by cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. If we accept that rational thought has a useful adaptive function, then the notion that we are all just a bunch of irrational thrill seekers becomes compromised.,

Anyway, Mercier and Sperber believe that we became rational in order to cooperate. We live in social groupings and we need to get along with each other. To do so we must overcome our egotism and selfishness in order to engage in cooperative exchanges. We need to think rationally about what is best for the group, but we also need to develop cooperative behaviors. And that we can only do so, I would contend, by following certain rules and customs and norms.

One can reasonably ask how this research does or does not sustain conclusions drawn from research that takes each undergraduate as a separate individual, that is, from research that does not require the students to cooperate.

Kolbert summarizes:

Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

As though that were not sufficiently confusing, Kolbert now moves on to the theory of confirmation bias. It has everything to do with cherry picking facts. People are more likely to accept information that confirms their beliefs and to ignore information that disproves it.

Of course, there is truth to this. Psychoanalysis is all about confirmation bias. And yet, ask yourself this: where did we learn the beliefs that we are defending against the evidence? Did we learn them from experience or did we learn them because someone told us? Have we tried to put them into action in the past? Have we found them to be serviceable?

Kolbert does not address these questions:

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford. For this experiment, researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

Unfortunately, the researchers seem to believe that they know the right and wrong answers here. Let’s imagine that you believe that capital punishment deters crime. One understands that Kolbert is going to politicize this, and is going to show that Trump supporters are ignorant yahoos who have been manipulated by false prophets while anti-Trump voters are eminently rational. 

In point of fact, research shows Trump supporters to be largely more intelligent than the average Democratic voter. After all, the Democratic Party has recently been cornering the market in stupid.

When dealing with a hot-button political issue, we might simply be less likely to believe what the often skewed research tells us. Perhaps more sophisticated thinkers do not instantly accept the claims of highly biased social science researchers. That is, people who would never let a fact disprove their deeply held beliefs.

Besides, I do not need to tell you, but a large amount of research in social science has been shown to be phony… that is, it cannot be replicated:

The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.

As for why reason developed, Mercier and Sperber put it down to status anxiety:

This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

For all I know, they understood that their survival was based on engaging in cooperative exchanges, where different people fulfilled different tasks. In order to function as a community, a community that could compete against other communities, our primitive ancestors developed systems of economic exchange and systems of social harmony… the better to survive. This required status hierarchies, but it also required people to engage in systematic economic exchanges. In order to create community efficiency we expect each member to contribute at what he or she is best at.  If we were really irrational creatures, we would never have survived.

As noted above, Kolbert designs her argument to arrive at a point where Obama supporters are eminently rational while Trump supporters are eminently irrational. If such is the case, why would anyone believe a word that she or the researchers say. Perhaps they have distorted the research to flatter their own self-esteem and to abuse our rational faculties.

She writes:

If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.

Precisely what makes her think that her position on the ACA is the truth while someone who disagrees with her is deluded? This is not a scientific fact. It is a belief. We have evidence that the ACA has done some good. And we have evidence that it has done some bad. Both are facts.... Now what?

Kolbert moves on to another book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us by psychiatrist Jack Gorman and his public health specialist daughter,  Sara Gorman. Apparently, the book will show us how irrational we are if we do not embrace leftist dogma.

The question they ask is this: 

There must be some way, they maintain, to convince people that vaccines are good for kids, and handguns are dangerous.

Perhaps if scientists did not keep lying to us in order to advance their political agenda people would be more likely to respect their views about vaccines. As for whether or not handguns are dangerous, that, dear friends, is not the issue. If they were not dangerous, people would not have them to defend themselves. Some people would rather, when facing a threat to life and limb, have a handgun at the ready.

Besides, the American nation has a Constitution. In its Bill of Rights citizens received the right to bear arms. So, adopting the leftist view on handguns, the one that wants to take away your guns and leave you at the mercy of predators, both human and inhuman, would involve a breach of contract. Why is the question never asked in those terms? 

While it is unimpeachably true that if there were no guns there would be no gun violence, this truth does not depend on any facts. It is also unimpeachably true that the American people possess over 300 million guns. And that they acquired those guns lawfully. If you think that you can take them all away by trotting out a sophism, you are smoking the wrong kind of cigarettes.


David Foster said...

It is generally assumed that anti-vaccine people are right-wing and are Trump supporters...a little anecdotal evidence should case doubt on this assertion: RFK Jr? The typical Hollywood celebrity?....I have also seen actual research, which seems based on a quick read to use a reasonable methodology, suggesting that the anti-vaccine people are found on the extremes of political belief in *both* directions. Which makes intuitive success.

One should also distinguish between a "vaccines aren't necessary and are a conspiracy for drug company profits" belief and a questioning about the safety/effectiveness tradeoff of a particular vaccine and/or the timing of vaccinations for infants. But hysterical politics is not good at dealing with shades of gray.

UbuMaccabee said...

Setting aside STEM, and that largely applies to knowledge, there is no wisdom in the university. Once that is clear, it becomes possible to reset your compass and find Philadelphia on the map. As long as the university occupies a place of honor in this nation, we will continue to absorb poison and corruption into our culture. It is the source of every bad idea in America.

Sam L. said...

Handguns ARE dangerous. I was taught that in the service. That's ONE of the reasons for having one (or more). A man I know shot himself thru his calf doing quick draws.

"While it is unimpeachably true that if there were no guns there would be no gun violence, this truth does not depend on any facts." There are still blowguns and bows and arrows. And javelins and spears.

Orde said...

This is a fascinating post. The problem is who determines what are facts outside of STEM subjects? Have all the facts about a topic been discovered and enunciated?
For example, if subjects had been told to judge the desirability or not of the death penalty on the basis of its deterrent value- something that may be hard to measure; what of the other reasons, viz retribution punishment, prevention of future murders by the subject individual etc. If as the subject of a study-test you had that in your mind, that might be a reason why you maintained your belief. These alternative viewpoints are simply not covered in the tests.

In short, simple psychological studies devised by 'scientists' cannot possibly encompass the complexities of the real world, which may be why so many of them are un-reproducible.

Anonymous said...

Have noticed that the left believes that truth is whatever they are told it is and therefore, truth is what they believe. I often read their comments, and they consistently confuse fact and opinion. On the subject of PDT,they'll say "He cares about no one but himself," when they have never met him and have no idea what he cares about.But you never read anything like "From what I have heard..." or any such distinction.

Last night, I had a discussion with a leftist. When I made a point he had no argument for, he said "I don't believe that." I said that doesn't matter -- that it is a fact. (And no, I don't remember now what it was, but it was a factual remark.) This person lives with his aunt and mother and what I hear is, that when they are argued with politically, they do the same -- when a point is made that does not match their opinion, although it is factual, they will always say "I don't believe that," as if truth were malleable (their attempt, of course, is to dismiss the truth and stop further debate.)

Seems small, but it's a huge matter, covering everything from climate to who benefits from tax cuts to our very biology. The left thinks their opinions are facts; biased though I may be, I don't see this same error among the right----although they are pushing very hard to force us to say, as Winston Smith had to, that 2+2=5 (and we had better be enthusiastic about it, too.)