cultural bias trumps scientific logic

I am a great fan of CBC radio’s “Ideas” podcasts, hosted by Paul Kennedy. Past episodes are available without charge at cbc.ca, iTunes and other sites, and all are entertaining. But the episode I listened to last night was exceptional. The topic is cultural cognition, the tendency of persons to make up their minds about risk based on social and cultural values (prejudice) rather than empirical evidence. Here is a link to the 54-minute podcast:

This episode is one of a series recorded at the Stratford Festival. It features CBC Massey Lecturer and Founding Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs Janice Gross Stein; physician-scientist, author, and deep-sea explorer Dr. Joe MacInnis; and science broadcaster and writer Jay Ingram.

Paul Kennedy, “The Discovery of Other Worlds“, CBC Ideas, 1 December 2015.

Each of the three participants made important contributions, but I especially enjoyed that of Jay Ingram. His introductory statement begins at 12:51, ending at about the 31-minute mark. With the help of google, I was able to locate a short piece that Mr Ingram wrote on the subject three years ago. Here is a brief excerpt.

Of course, our attitudes towards government and industry shouldn’t interfere with our logical evaluation of scientific data. But that’s not how things work. The depth of these social and cultural traits cannot be overestimated. In a sense, they carve society into tribes of like-minded people. Tribe membership ensures that everyone shares the same values, and that they all resist challenges to those values. This happens because we all employ – unconsciously – well-known psychological mechanisms like confirmation bias to persuade ourselves that, for instance, climate change is real and dangerous. Or that it isn’t.

This argument applies to all personality types. No matter how open-minded, rational and well-considered you think your opinions are, you cannot be immune to these social pressures. And it’s not irrational to argue on behalf of your tribe – it makes total sense.

But shouldn’t scientific literacy diminish the influence of those tribal attitudes and put you on a firmer, more logical, data-driven footing? Apparently not. One of the most striking studies done by the Cultural Cognition group showed that the more scientifically literate a group was, the more polarized their views. Climate change skeptics became even more skeptical the more familiar they were with the science. So forget the old argument that if only we had a more scientifically literate populace, we could deal with these issues more rationally.

Jay Ingram, “Belief Is Biased: It’s vital to know how our values trump logic“, Alternatives Journal 38:5 (September 2012), pp. 30-31.

The Ideas podcast is even better. I highly recommend it. Listen to it, and you will discover that humans are not so rational, despite best intentions. This might help explain – at least partially – our difficulty in achieving consensus on important issues, and living together in peace and harmony.

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