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Why We Believe—Long After We Shouldn’t

Our brains are wired for self-justification and dissonance-reduction. We can override that impulse by learning how to admit our mistakes and separate them from our self-esteem.

It’s pretty clear nowadays that we are not the rational animals we’d like to believe we are; in fact, we are more accurately called the “rationalizing animal.” Skeptics are often puzzled when we calmly provide evidence that a popular belief is wrong, that some group is holding onto a way of doing things that’s long past its sell-by date, and recipients of this valuable information don’t say, “Why, thank you! I had no idea!” Why would people prefer to justify mistaken beliefs, behavior, and practices rather than change them for better ones? Isn’t it good to know you didn’t cause your child’s autism with vaccinations?

As skeptics we are faced constantly with what psychologists call “the motivated rejection of science.” Take global warming, for example. It’s easy to assume that climate-change deniers are less educated or informed than wise scientists, but it’s not so simple. An article in Psychological Science by Stephan Lewandowsky and Klaus Oberauer found that attitudes about global warming are unrelated to levels of scientific literacy, numeracy, or education. They are associated with political partisanship; that is, among liberals, higher levels of scientific literacy and education are associated with increased acceptance of climate change, the importance of vaccination, and trust in science. But among conservatives, higher levels of scientific literacy and education are associated with reduced acceptance. That’s motivated cognition; people are emotionally motivated to reject findings that threaten their core beliefs or worldview. At present, the researchers found, public rejection of scientific findings is more prevalent on the political right than the left, yet, they added, “the cognitive mechanisms driving rejection of science are found regardless of political orientation.” Meaning: It depends what scientific finding it is. Whether your worldview comes from the left or right, you will be tempted to sacrifice skepticism even when your side is promoting some cockamamie belief without evidence.

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