Monday, 9 May 2011


Chris Mooney has been posting some excellent pieces recently, thankfully avoiding (mostly) his accommodationist nonsense. At Mother Jones he wrote The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, detailing many studies exploring our cognitive problems. It's well worth a read to get acquainted with some of the studies exercising psychologists at the moment. In it he talks about how emotion informs and, to a degree, poisons one's pre-existing beliefs and affects how one argues.
And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, 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.
This is his standard retort to gnu atheism. But it's quite modest, and doesn't do the work he wants it to. I mean, obviously on many (most?) occasions people are persuaded by evidence and argument. What he means to say is that this may not be the best way when the issue under discussion triggers deep emotions. Later he says:

If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.

Again, this, I presume (!)  is the reason for his tone trolling, but it's not doing the work he wants. I don't think any gnu denies that tone is important, and these studies indicate some reasons why a sympathetic context can work. But that doesn't mean it's the only way to get results. Ridicule also generates an emotional reaction, and that may produce results too, without evidence and argument. I can remember being persuaded as a child not to do certain things by the ridicule heaped on me by my brothers when I went wrong. There was precious little evidence and argument presented.

More recently he's blogged about a study relevant to that article, calling it Is Reasoning Built for Winning Arguments, Rather Than Finding Truth?. That title's not really accurate, as a read through uncovers. It's based on a study by Mercier and Sperber, called Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Mooney sums it up better in the final line:
When it comes to reasoning, then, what’s good for the group could be very bad for the individual–or, for the echo chamber.
An interesting finding. We have an imperfect reasoning tool in our locker. If we just reason our way around the world as individuals, disaster can strike. So, an example in the comments, the Unabomber living alone in the woods can easily go crazy because no one is there to say, “Whoa, where’d you get that idea?” A better evolutionary survival tactic is to introduce some argument. This, I guess, moderates some of the flaws in our thinking, such as cognitive bias, and is more likely to produce a better result for the genes (this is an evolutionary psychology argument). In the comments it's also made clear that like-minded groups are a problem too. Hugo Mercier pops up to confirm what he thinks the solution is:
What we’re suggesting is that in a normal debate, you try to convince the other guy when you produce arguments, but you’re mostly objective when you evaluate arguments (after all, if you’re better off changing your mind, you’d rather know about it). So a normal debate is the solution, and it has worked very well for ever. There is no need for any new thing really, just fixing institutions that don’t rely enough on genuine debate.
A pretty good addition to the argument for freedom of speech, I think. Further, it counters the accommodationist position that gnu atheists shouldn't confront the moderately religious and dismiss their beliefs. Genuine debate is what gnus demand, and these studies suggest that if moderate religionists aren't challenged, they will operate in an echo chamber that may end up radicalising their views.

No doubt accommodationists can accuse gnus of operating in their very own echo chamber, but this chamber rings very hollow indeed. In a world where atheists are outvoted and outprivileged wherever one looks, it will be a long time before it becomes a dangerous in-group. But one would have to concede that it may happen one day. O, frabjous day!
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