Saturday, January 3, 2015

#010: Studies

Comedian Lewis Black once spoke of a conversation he had with a young earth creationist. Black tried to convince the creationist that the earth could not have been created in six literal days over six thousand years ago because fossils show the earth to be much older than that—to which the creationist replied that fossils could not be trusted because, as Black quoted him, “fossils are the handiwork of the devil.” (Black had to remind himself to breath after hearing that!)

We human beings tend to be comfortable with our deeply-held belief systems, so much so that we are reluctant to change them, even in light of evidence to the contrary; so when we are confronted with new evidence that conflicts with an old belief, we experience an uncomfortable feeling known as cognitive dissonance.

Since the old belief and new evidence cannot both be held as true, one must be discarded in favor of the other in order to absolve ourselves of our cognitive dissonance. If we are rational, we will discard our old belief in favor of the new evidence. However, despite being capable of reason, we human beings tend not to act rationally. Instead, choosing to find solace in our closely-held beliefs, we protect them at all costs, even against all evidence to the contrary.

We preserve our old beliefs by rationalizing away the new evidence. Since it's often too difficult to attack the evidence itself (especially when it’s based on sound logic and scientific empiricism), the easiest way for us to dismiss it is by attacking the source from which it came. This is a logical fallacy known as the genetic fallacy, and it is most disingenuous in that it judges evidence, not upon its own merits, but on the merits of its source. To use the old saying, it attacks the messenger rather than the message.

In Black’s case, the creationist he was arguing with refused to accept fossils as evidence against his belief in a six-thousand year old earth because, to him, fossils were the creation of the devil. It didn’t matter whether or not the devil actually created fossils: to the creationist, fossils could not be trusted because they were created by the devil, who, being evil incarnate, cannot be trusted.

The genetic fallacy is often most prominent in political debates, especially on the internet. We human beings tend to base our identity on our politics; so when new evidence comes about that conflicts with our political beliefs, we try to protect our beliefs by hand-waving away the evidence, and we usually accomplish this by attacking the source, which is often a nefarious political boogeyman.

Suppose you were a minimum wage advocate because you believed raising the minimum wage would create new jobs. What do you do when you come across a study showing that minimum wage hikes don't correlate with employment levels? Simple. Dismiss the study because it was created by a right-wing think tank funded by the Koch Brothers!

What about a study that proves vaccines don’t cause autism? Ignore it because it was created by Big Pharma! Gun control doesn’t decrease gun violence? Gun Lobby! GMOs don’t cause cancer? Monsanto! If there’s a study disproving you political beliefs, it was probably created by a nefarious political bogeyman, so don’t pay attention to it.

After all, why bother trying to refute the evidence when you can easily dismiss its source? Probably because you cannot legitimately refute the evidence because it’s too grounded in logic, reason, and evidence. After all, if the evidence did prove your political belief wrong, that means you were wrong—and there’s nothing more humiliating than being proven wrong, right?

(As for the last panel in this comic, “liberals” have often pushed dubious studies that malign conservatives as “mentally deficient.” Ironically enough, Soviet Communists often suppressed political dissent by diagnosing their political opponents with mental illness. Coincidence?)