Are We Hard-Wired to Dismiss Facts?

Here is why the science of “dismissing facts” is mostly wrong.  

Posted Feb 09, 2020

15th-century painting by Pedro Berruguete.  Wiki Commons
Saint Dominic and his Albigensian disputant tossing their books into a fire. Saint Dominic's books miraculously leapt out of the fire.
Source: 15th-century painting by Pedro Berruguete. Wiki Commons

As the 2020 US election campaign reaches new levels of public anxiety,  an article claiming that “Humans Are Hardwired to Dismiss Facts That Don’t Fit Their Worldview” has gone viral on social media. 

This scientific take on human stupidity, often called “motivated reasoning”, is true on more counts than most people think.  It is also not exactly true — again, on levels that most people don’t understand.  Finally, it points to good news about why we have political and culture wars to begin with, and what we can do to resolve them. 

1. Motivated reasoning is adaptive. 

The first caveat with this theory is that it appeals most to people who feel they are on the 'right side of history'.  In sharing this article, they hope to present 'evidence' that people they disagree with are stupid.  Many people fail to consider that the formula applies to their dismissal of other people's views as well. 

This is classical bad faith, and a perverse example of a theory that proves itself by being misunderstood. 

In defense of the “Hard-wired to dismiss facts” view, there is a large and growing body of evidence — especially under Bayesian models of the brain, cognition, and culture — that human minds, like all living organisms, are biologically motivated to see and make the world consistent with their prior beliefs (both evolved and learned). This means that people often completely ignore (as in “not see at all”) what doesn’t fit their model, or actively work to destroy any evidence that challenges their model. Burning or banning books, disinviting speakers, or calling for the retraction of published articles seem extreme, but those are almost mundane cultural examples of how human cognition works to begin with. 

Humans are cultural, cooperative beings.  This means they need other people’s labour to survive and live well. They especially need other people’s knowledge, skills, values, goals, and moral codes.  Humans cannot figure anything out on their own without learning from others - including others who are long dead and contributed to the common pool of ideas and skills.  There are clear fitness advantages to outsourcing from others, then upholding, defending and competing for the normative models that govern what one ought to believe and value and how one ought to behave in a given society.  Developmental psychologists have shown that children implicitly acquire these cultural models and become intrinsically motivated to see kids with different models as “wrong”, then display cruelty toward “the other side”.  These are the evolutionary and developmental roots of bullying.  

2. Why the in-group out-group view is mostly false. 

Contrary to Pop Psych beliefs, children (and adults) are typically less concerned with how 'bad' and 'wrong' people from very different groups are than with people from their own groups.  Cheaters, freeloaders, defectors, apostates, and marginals from within the in-group are judged and punished more harshly than those from other groups.  These are basic homeostatic and thermodynamic principles to ensure that cultural models remain consistent and optimal. Witch hunts start from within cultural groups for this reason. 

The first good news about epidemic bad-faith in America (“look, science shows how stupid you guys are, but not me”) and the culture wars at large is that people are trying to make the 'other side' fit into their model because they already perceive the other side as belonging to the same democratic in-group.  Human minds are not well equipped to deal with large groups of people.  Before mass media technologies, large-scale cooperative project were impossible to maintain.  Mass media started slowly 5000 years ago with the invention of writing, trended up 600 years ago with the printing press, soared with the telegraph, then television, then cable television in the past century, then exploded with the Internet and imploded with smartphones and mobile Internet.

When vegans are outraged by meat-eating, when omnivores are outraged by vegans, when religious groups are outraged by homosexuality, or when urban elite democrats are outraged by 'red-neck' republicans, the 'motivated reasoning' is not hatred of the out-group:  the key mechanisms, rather, are altruism, solidarity, and high moral standards for other Americans —that is, for people who are perceived to belong to the same group and the same democratic project; people, in other words, only slightly different from oneself. 

Humans rarely hold people from actual out-groups accountable to the same set of moral standards.  Most Americans are unlikely to get triggered by the life-ways of Turkana nomads in Kenya, Mongolian yak herders, or Sufi mystics in Kyrgyzstan. Reports of ‘exotic’ marriage customs in those groups, for most Americans, is likely to elicit more curiosity than outrage.   

3. ‘Reasoning’ is argumentation

If the 'motivated reasoning' viewpoints to flaws in our ability to consider novel facts, it is because humans are most unintelligent when it comes to their own beliefs.  But they can be quite smart about other people’s beliefs. The good news about encountering different positions is that they typically activate what cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier call 'epistemic vigilance'. You may think of this concept as a fancy term for 'critical thinking', or 'vigilance about knowledge'.  Critical thinking means investing extra mental effort to examine facts, ideas, and arguments.  We tend to be vigilant about novel facts because it can be maladaptive to unlearn or forget important fitness-conferring information. But we are also ‘interested’ in new facts because it can be maladaptive to ignore novel fitness-relevant information.

For Mercier and Sperber, reasoning, intelligence — and indeed learning itself — can only occur in an argumentative context that prompts us to reexamine our models in relation to models different from our own.   

The importance of argument, debate, and confronting our biases in uncomfortable conversations has been recognized as key to learning and wisdom for a very long time, and by most cultures.   The Socratic method of weighting each point with a counter-point to arrive at a synthesis is based on this principle.   In medieval universities, where all of learning, science, and philosophy were conducted under the pedagogy of Catholic theology, scholars who defended their doctoral degrees had to present their arguments in a 'disputation' against a senior 'opponent' appointed by the University.  This is why we still speak of 'defending' one’s thesis or dissertation.  Medieval universities in the Mediterranean region also held inter-faith disputations, notably between Christian and Jewish theologians! 

In Tibetan Buddhism, debates on the Sutras (the teachings of the Buddha) and classical tenets of Indian philosophy is a central part of the learning process.  In July 2019, I had the good fortune to attend a gathering of Buddhist scholars in the remote Himalayan valley of Nubra in the region of Ladakh  — a former kingdom of Tibet administered by India. Under the leadership of a Rinpoche teacher (said to be the reincarnation of an enlightened being), monks, laypeople and children gathered to debate the Sutras.  Among invitees and attendees where local Muslims (Shia and Sunni, men and women, clerics and lay), Sikhs, and members of several denominations of Tibetan Buddhism.  The collective learning that ensued — with the Rinpoche often standing corrected upon hearing a novel interpretation — was one of the most compelling acts of pedagogy I have witnessed to date. 

Or consider again how argumentative reasoning runs deep in the Judaic tradition, through the importance of debating classical rabbinical commentaries collected in the Talmud. While often described as rigid and out of touch with contemporary life, the Talmud — as a living tradition — reckons with two fundamental challenges for the human species: 1) the need to preserve a sacred tradition of collective memory, virtues, and ritual prescriptions for the good life elaborated over centuries, and; 2) the importance of putting these prescriptions to test through ongoing scrutiny, debate, and interpretation. The story of Resh Lekish (a  3rd century scholar who was reported to have been a bandit and a gladiator in Roman Palestine), is worth recounting at length in the words of Sharon Brous, a senior Rabbi based in Los Angeles:

"Resh Lakish was Rabbi Yohanan’s hevruta, his sparring partner, and they were perfectly matched. Every time Rabbi Yohanan argued a point, Resh Lakish challenged him twenty-four times. Rabbi Yohanan answered each challenge with his own, until the matter became clear to both of them. After Resh Lakish’s death, Rabbi Yohanan was inconsolable, realizing that he could not find truth without someone willing to challenge him, to sharpen his thinking (Bava Metzia 84a). 

Our greatness (Rabbi Brous continues) depends upon our willingness to engage with narratives and perspectives that make us profoundly uncomfortable. As a community, when we silence the voices we don’t like and marginalize the people asking the difficult questions, we all lose. The Talmud calls us to hear the challenge. It seems to me that the vitality of our community rests on that proposition.

Photo by Johann P. Veissière
Tibetan Buddhist gathering in Nubra Valley
Source: Photo by Johann P. Veissière

4. Democracy means liberating discomfort for all

The key lesson here is that there can be no learning and no ‘reasoning’, without debate — and indeed no democracy without discomfort and epistemic sparring sessions.  When people feel outraged by others, it is because they recognize them as humans working for the same goal of living together well; it is because they care about one another and are interested in each others' ideas! 

Opponents in the culture wars should embrace their commonalities, but first, embrace and celebrate their enmity and differences!  They ought to treat each others as hevrutot instead of distant enemies, and negotiate their differences through dialogue, disputation, and debate. In its original Aramaic form, the word Chavrusa meant friendship, or companionship.  

In spite — or because of!— the strong tribal limits on our psychology, the virtues and values of embracing difference have also been kept alive in all human traditions. All cultures prescribe charity for those in need, hospitality to those different from us, and commitment to the greater human good.  Charity and hospitality also teach us to engage in forgiveness and reconciliation.  An ability to let go of grudges and forgive is recognized as a very important predictor of good mental health.  It is time to remember that forgiveness also predicts good democracy. 

The package of core, universal, altruistic values is often translated and lived in traditions of loving-kindness.  This is the direct translation of a word honoured in all religions, like the Judaic practice of Tzedakah, the Muslim practice of Sadaqah, or the Buddhist practice of Metta.

Loving-kindness, like democracy, forgiveness, and reconciliation is no easy feat.  It is counter-intuitive, effortful, and cannot be achieved on one's own.  It also entails (and begins with) personal sacrifice. Democracy, as such, doesn’t and cannot mean that everybody will be ‘accommodated’ and happy all the time.  In engaging in the democratic process, we all give up, sacrifice, and compromise something to gain something much greater in return; to gain a much richer life by working and arguing together for a better world.  

As an exercise for the comment section, I invite readers to abstain from self-righteous exercises in denouncing the stupidity of their enemies.  Tell us, rather, how you learned something from, and became friends, with your enemies.