Not just a river

Chris Mooney has been hard at work lately, through his journalism, his blogging, and his podcast at the Center for Inquiry, trying to understand why denialism is so pervasive. In the new issue of Mother Jones, he lays out some of "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science":

an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has ...demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called "motivated reasoning" helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, "death panels," the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds--fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We're not driven only by emotions, of course--we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower--and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

These psychological insights are crucial building blocks for anyone who wants to convince other people of just about anything. We might wish to live in a world of purely rational beings, but the only way to make the world more rational is, alas, to play upon the same psychological quirks that make science so unacceptable to so many people.


when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end--winning our "case"--and is shot through with biases. They include "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

And this is the central challenge in trying to change someone's mind, whether the creationists Chris uses in some of his examples, or anti-vaccine activists. I ran into this recently when a friend of mine mentioned in conversation that she planned to delay vaccinating her new baby, and to skip some vaccines entirely. In this case, she's got a background in medicine, so I couldn't just say "I'm a biologist," and the details of immunology she'd gleaned from anti-vaxxers got into sufficiently obscure areas that I had to tread lightly so as not to accidentally step in a trap. Getting a basic fact wrong would make me no longer a credible source.

How had this friend - a smart person with medical training and a deep and abiding love for her child - gotten sucked into the dangerous world of vaccine denial? It started, I think, with her skepticism about "western medicine," a skepticism which journalist Seth Mnookin argues convincingly tends only to be fed by the typical ways doctors respond to patients' concerns about vaccine safety. Doctors are rushed, and they don't tend to like having to explain fairly basic things, let alone defend the very edifice of modern science and medicine, so someone primed not to trust doctors will find confirmation of that bias in the doctor's behavior.

The anti-vaxx movement plays to that by offering a welcoming community, and by offering simple explanations that play to the fears and cognitive biases of frightened parents. And once someone's inside that community, it's hard to get them out. I considered unleashing the great and mighty Orac on her, but I feared his brand of "respectful insolence" wouldn't bring her back from the brink. Attacks on the mendacity of Andrew Wakefield were tempting, too, but I feared that someone who believed Wakefield was a martyr to an embattled medical establishment might well take a harsh Wakefield debunking as evidence of that martyr framing. People always look for ways to dismiss evidence, and finding the right source of evidence to cut through the anti-vaccine pseudoscience was tricky, and is an ongoing process.

Of course, I see this in my day job, too, where the challenge is the same. It's easy for creationists to dismiss new research on evolution, claiming all scientists are engaged in a massive atheistic propaganda enterprise anyway. Why should they trust those atheist scientists telling them what they don't want to hear, when there are nice Christians happy to play to their biases? By writing off sources of evidence contrary to their beliefs, it's easy to pretend that their debunked beliefs are well-supported!

Mooney explains this dynamic with research Dan Kahan and his group have been publishing:

people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views--and thus the relative risks inherent in each scenario. A hierarchal individualist finds it difficult to believe that the things he prizes (commerce, industry, a man's freedom to possess a gun to defend his family) could lead to outcomes deleterious to society. Whereas egalitarian communitarians tend to think that the free market causes harm, that patriarchal families mess up kids, and that people can't handle their guns. The study subjects weren't "anti-science"--not in their own minds, anyway. It's just that "science" was whatever they wanted it to be. "We've come to a misadventure, a bad situation where diverse citizens, who rely on diverse systems of cultural certification, are in conflict," says Kahan.

The case of vaccine denial is the only major example Mooney offers of science denial coming from the left, a point which Kevin Drum (blogging for Mother Jones) flags as problematic:

Chris wrenches his spine out of shape bending over backward to find an example of liberals denying science as much as conservatives. It might be true that you can find vaccine deniers in the aisles of Whole Foods, but if there's any rigorous evidence that belief in the vaccine-autism link is especially pronounced or widespread among liberals, I haven't seen it. Surely there's a better, more substantive example than that floating around somewhere?

I'm not aware of any polling regarding the autism/vaccine link, and not for lack of trying. I'd be fascinated to see such a survey, and I suspect that you would see an ideological component to it. The highest rates of vaccine rejection in California occur, after all, in liberal Marin County, and I see more of it in San Francisco than I recall seeing in Kansas.

The closest I've come is a question from a 2009 survey by Pew, in which people were asked whether "Parents should be able to decide NOT to vaccinate their children" or if they thought "All children should be required to be vaccinated." More than 2/3 favored requiring vaccinations (68.5%), and conservatives (65%) are less likely to favor compulsory vaccination than liberals (73%). The trend is statistically significant (by my own analysis of the raw data), though it's a fairly modest effect on a practical level, and probably driven not by political ideology but by other underlying attitudes and affects.

The problem is that conservatives are less likely, on average, to favor any collective action, so it's not surprising that they'd be less likely to think vaccination should be "required." You'd expect to see different answers if folks were asked whether all parents should choose to vaccinate, as opposed to whether all parents should be forced to vaccinate. And, of course, the question doesn't get to people's reasons for not vaccinating. Conservatives may think it's some Strangelovian plot to pollute our essence and make us into communists, but I can't think of a major conservative outlet that has advanced the absurd and oft-debunked attempt to link autism to vaccines. Nor, to my knowledge, have liberal opinion journals like Mother Jones or The Nation endorsed it, but you see plenty of it in the hippy-dippier magazines that cater to decisively liberal audiences.


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Today's NYT has Thomas Edsall's What the Left Get's Right, the follow up piece to last week's What the Right Get's Right, and what's fascinating is how even conservative commentators think liberals get science right more often than conservatives. Or at least they are less likely to view it…
I realize that I'm possibly stepping into proverbial lion's den with this one, but a man's got to do what a man's got to do. As you may recall, former ScienceBlogs bloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (and current Discover Magazine bloggers) recently released a book called Unscientific…

Chris Mooney's paper raises some interesting questions For instance he says:
We're not driven only by emotions, of courseâwe also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slowerâand even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.
So presumably many scientists who are experts in a particular field react to suggestions that there were flaws in their understanding in the same way as Mooney describes for climate change deniers and anti-vaxers? My experience is that the more established the speciality the harder it is to get so-called scientists to listen to serious questions about the foundations of their discipline.
Let me test readers of this blog to see how open-minded they are to an challenge to the belief that computer technology is based on the best scientific foundations.

QUESTION 1: Do you agree that the computer processor is a black box whose inner workings are so obscure and people-unfriendly that there is little hope of 99% of the users to understand them?.

Despite the great success of computer I would guess virtually every reader will agree with me.

QUESTION 2: Do you believe that, by reconfiguring the components of the computer central processor it would be possible to construct a white box system where the internal workings were meaningful to the user?

I suspect that most of you will give a knee-jerk response "What a silly Question- of course such an alternative would be impossible"

QUESTION 3: Why do you think that? Can you cite a paper where anyone has tried to do so and failed?

Let me remind you about the origins of computers. They were constructed to do algorithmic tasks which people found difficult to do quickly and accurately. Once it was realised something of their potential a gold rush started to capitalize on the market and anyone who paused to say "Lets do some Blue Sky research to explore the possibility of inherently people friendly systems" would have been trampled in the stampede for profit and career advancement. By the time people started thinking of the human interface the supremacy of the established methodology was firmly established and early work, such as that at Xerox Parc was to add a friendly interface to an inherrently unfriendly system.

QUESTION 4: Did you know that in 1972 a patent addressing a possible answer to the question was published under the title "Information handling system for elimination distinctions between data items and program instructions"?

I am sure none of you have never heard of it.

QUESTION 5: Would you like to know how the proposals were stamped on by the establishment until the principal investigator gave up in disgust?

The problem was that the approach stated from a diametrically opposite starting point to the concept behind the stored program computer. In particular it started from the assumption that the real world is too complex to be able to predefine in advance - while the algorithmic approach assumes that that there is a creator process necessary to predetermine the algorithm.

I am currently beginning to re-examine this project, and why if "failed", on the blog Trapped by the Box at

I'm not currently aware of any massive science denial from the left, but folks who consider themselves on the left would be advised not to believe themselves immune from human nature....

A great book about past science denial that came from the left is documented in Stephen Pinker's book "The Blank Slate". Indeed, it came from the left in the academy.

Another example would be the whole post-modernist deconstructionist denial of science as a process.

The other major denialism coming from the left is food science denialism. The pushers of organic quackery reject science just as thoroughly as do the climate science denialists and the anti-vaccers.

The easiest examples of science denialism coming from the left in the last 50 years have been related to research on nature/nurture issues of human behavior or human group differences. The left tends to favor nurture, and the right favors nature, and our cultural consensus pendulum swings back and forth. Denialism on the left often takes the form of prior restraint on a research question: the answer is declared by ideological fiat regardless of scientific evidence. Are any of you old enough to remember how verboten it was to consider male-female behavior differences biological in the early 1970s? How about research on a biological basis for homosexuality back then? The original type example of science denialism on the left was of course soviet denial of genetics in favor of lysenkoism.

By john smith (not verified) on 20 Apr 2011 #permalink

If the denialism comes from a distrust of large entitities with a profit motive, I can certainly see that on the left. It's a common theme, and everytime a corporation missteps in one way, it feeds into that theme in another way.
Why should they trust the nuclear industry when the industry claims their plants are safe, yet the disaster in Japan proves that claim wrong?
Why should they trust the meat industry when the industry fights regulation, there are food recalls and unsafe and dirty, unclean processing conditions.
Why should they trust genetically modified food if the patents on these are being used to drive legacy farmers out of business, and leverage farmers to depend only on their product?
These are largely rhetorical questions, but the fact remains is that there are times when there are reasons to distrust how science is used by business.
Who hasn't laughed at those pharmaceutical commercials with the soft sell of their product followed by the ridiculous warning that if you use this, your ears might fall off and death might occur?
Some people might have a condition so severe that they're willing to take that risk, but others might see that commercial and think that - without being forced to - those companies wouldn't have told us about that risk, or would have buried it in volumes of fine print.
That distrust isn't going away soon, and there will be more incidents that feed into it, so a credible way of communicating will need to acknowledge and deal with that mistrust.

Conservatives may think it's some Strangelovian plot to pollute our essence and make us into communists, but I can't think of a major conservative outlet that has advanced the absurd and oft-debunked attempt to link autism to vaccines.

Then you are indeed quite sheltered, my friend, if you are unaware of vaccine denialism on the right. For example, FOX and Friends has been featuring anti-vaxers favored by Age of Autism on the show for the last couple of years now. A couple of recent examples, pimped by the anti-vaccine crank blog AoA itself:…

They've even promoted a false "balance" with Andrew Wakefield himself:…

Orac: Thanks. I confess to living a sheltered life with respect to Fox News.

Anything that admits that no "part" of our thinking is behind an impenetrable wall from other "parts" is probably a great advance. The modularity of thinking is the current fashion in explanation but it's the result of prejudicial and desires assumptions - I would hold based, at least in part, from an entirely non-scientific ideological position. I would expect that sooner or later, as the implications of addressing thoughts of any individual as happening in their one and only mind are appreciated by the modularity folks, the ideas admitting that obvious fact will be attacked.

It's inescapable that we all carry a vested interest in our previously gained knowledge, what we consult in order to think on an "objective" level, what we hold as true, the foundation we take as firm and so build on. Planck said that progress in science comes funeral by funeral, as those who don't have a deep, emotional and professional investment in outmoded ideas are replaced by those who have other, newer investments.

No one achieves objectivity in that sense. The best you can hope for is not to make too much a fool of yourself during your own lifetime.

A great book about past science denial that came from the left is documented in Stephen Pinker's book "The Blank Slate". Indeed, it came from the left in the academy. Robb Knop

Pinker was resorting the the same kind of attack that the
Sociobiologists made against their critics, in many cases the same people. And for his own professional-political reasons. It had little to nothing to do with science and as Pinker's results begin to dissolve, which they will, it will remain the lifeline of his career and those who built off of it. That's what's already becoming apparent as the ideological foundations of Sociobiology-evo-psy start to unravel.

I would bet that some of the scientists who are the subject of that kind of red-baiting will stand up better in science because they tended to have work based in physical evidence that was, actually, less prone to ideological contamination.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 20 Apr 2011 #permalink

TB, it reminds me of the refusal of polio vaccinations in parts of Nigeria, where the local imams discouraged people to have their children vaccinated to great indignation and understandable consternation. But the reasons they gave were, in part, a disastrous drug test by Pfizer which injured and killed a number of children in Nigeria. They were also worried about a link between innoculations and AIDS. Which was considered superstition by most people but which they could have easily absorbed from even well connected, mainstream scientists. Among others, W. D. Hamilton who were promoting the possibility.

The part that past failures and corruptions from scientists, the overselling of science with resulting failures all inform people of how to think about science and scientists. It fuels distrust and the part that science and scientists promoting their own side in these things does play a part and is actively used by those with a financial interest in promoting denial.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 20 Apr 2011 #permalink

The title of Wakefield's retracted paper was, âIleal lymphoid hyperplasia, non-specific colitis and pervasive developmental disorder in childrenâ.

An excerpt from this weeks PBS newshour special;

"ROBERT MACNEIL: Nick's (Macneil's grandson) complex problems demanded a broader view of autism. Some call it a new paradigm, or a systemic illness, or a whole-body experience. One of the leaders of that new thinking is Dr. Timothy Buie, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University.

DR. TIMOTHY BUIE, Massachusetts General Hospital: Six months ago, he was so lethargic and so out of it that he came into the office and literally laid on the chair for a 30- or 40-minute visit. He never moved.

He wouldn't interact. He wouldn't give you any eye contact whatsoever. And at the end of the appointment, Mom picked him up and took him out and went home.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Dr. Buie found changes in the lower GI tract he called lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia - inflammation and damage in his small intestine.

How does that affect the life of a child like Nick? For instance, does it give him pain?

DR. TIMOTHY BUIE: I think it can give pain. And I think pain in a child with autism is a very difficult thing to assess because a child with autism can't vocalize that. He will very often not come to you and say, "I've got a bellyache." He can't use those words. So he may exhibit that as a child who doesn't sleep well. He may exhibit that as a child who has a lot of increased agitation or hyperstimulatory-type behaviors.

And part of the problem with that is that we've accepted that those are behaviors that we often see in children with autism, and we've written it off to their autism. So it's very difficult to think through whether that's a marker for pain in some of those kids if we're unwilling to look for other reasons."

How can any reasonable human being read this and not be furious? These kids could have been recieving treatment for the last 13 years if the cover-up was not in place. People who deny this are criminals. Thank God for Wakefield!

Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end -- winning our "case"

Haidt and Mooney (by adoption) seem to be thinking of the type of lawyer who earns the epithet "mouthpiece" and is only interested in the billings, or those lawyers to the creationists whose clients don't want good advice, just affirmation and who give it to them. However, better quality lawyers know their first job is to properly advise their client regardless of the client's desired outcome. The kind of target-fixation Haidt describes is deadly to providing good legal advice. Such a fixation also leads to a failure to accurately assess and prepare to meet the other side's case, again, not A Good Thing in a lawyer. It it leads to expensive losses in litigation where a settlement might have been arrived at sooner and far less expensively. Does that ring any bells?

Perhaps the mouthpiece is a more common type in the Wild West style litigation culture of America, but lawyers like that are not looked on with much respect in the legal community here.

BTW, I wonder what folk like Eric Rothschild, Witold Walczak, Stephen Harvey and Richard Katskee would make of Haidt and Mooney's description of the way lawyers think.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 20 Apr 2011 #permalink

Polly, a reasonable person can look at this video and then ask whether anecdotal results are borne out in properly controlled trials. They aren't.

Indeed, Wakefield's paper was retracted because he faked data and failed to get proper informed consent from some of his pediatric patients, hardly reason to give thanks for his actions.

In the consciousness studies field David Chalmers was acknowledged as having expressed an 'aha' moment when he distinguished the 'easy problem' from the 'hard problem'. What was surprising was that the easy problem is to do with scientific research on consciousness. The hard problem is describing what cosnciousness is, in terms of the everyday feeling of what it is to be conscious. Similarly with the ideas of quantum uncertainty (in Physics) and ontological indeterminacy (in Philosophy), where science, maths, and logic run out of steam. But art and imagination, and the proteins and enzymes that support them, function just fine.

There's a certain dignity for the ordinary person in that quandary for the best minds, that the ordinary schmuck in the street will remain a mystery to the esteemed field of science for many years yet. Maybe that's what Kant meant when he wrote that people should be treated as ends in themselves rather than means to an end.

There's a fascinating parallel in a passage of Aristotle along similar lines:

"The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed."
~ Aristotle, 'Metaphysics' (II.1 993a 30-4, transl. W. D. Ross, in 'The Complete Works of Aristotle', ed. J. Barnes, Oxford, 1984)

Proper trials Josh? Like the MMR research carried out by the Danish researcher Paul Thorson which was published in JAMA. You probably heard of Thorson this week. He was indicted on 13 felony fraud charges. He used the autism research money (yours and my tax dollars) for a Harley, an audi, a Lexus and an Atlanta condo (for starters). Is this what you're refering to?

Polly, Josh, FYI Orac blogged about Thorsen some months back. Polly, Thorsen appears to be corrupt, yes, but he is a bit player, was not important to the pertinent papers, and the work has been duplicated a number or times. This is how science works.

People can make mistakes, the data may be incorrectly observed for a number or reasons, people may be as-yet unaware of important and pertinent processes, or they may even be corrupt like Thorsen or Wakefield. But the research doesn't count unless it can be replicated. The autism link cannot be found be any study.

I am frankly baffled by folks like you, who dismiss the established dishonesty and contempt for children's welfare that Wakefield has demonstrated. Do you have such a powerful emotional need to find science wrong that you dismiss all of mainstream medicine, but embrace one outlier? This is a perfect example of what this post is about.…

Kermit, I've read every single study that has looked at vaccines and autism. The only studies that support the safety of injecting newborns and infants with known neurotoxins are statistical manipulations (epidemiology) done by the makers, promoters and administraters of said vaccines. I can provide links to over 36 published, peer-reviewed papers which show the damage done to brain tissue by thimerosal and aluminum used at vaccine levels.

Wakefield rocked the boat big time. He threw a major monkey wrench into the $50 billion/year vaccine industry.

Polly, Wakefield threw a wrench into nothing but his own credibility when he faked data and enrolled children in unauthorized medical testing to prop up a vaccine patent he'd filed. Epidemiological studies are not "statistical manipulations," and calling them that simply undermines whatever credibility you might have had. Those studies include surveys of the effects of vaccination on every child in Denmark. If there were an effect, you'd detect it in such a dataset.

The makers of the vaccines did not conduct this research. Vaccination has promoted and administered by doctors for at least two centuries, and they are unquestionably the right people to conduct research on the effects of medical treatments. Wakefield, for what it's worth, lost his medical license in part because of the way he abused his patients' rights in carrying out his flawed "research."