Thursday, July 21, 2011

john dickson on why people believe things

People may hold their political, religious or ethical beliefs for all sorts of reasons, but we all like to think that we are very rational in the way we come to our own views. But some recent studies suggest few of us are as logical as we might think, as historian John Dickson reported in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Studies of reason and belief

In one study, Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University found that both politically conservative and liberal people tended to believe factual news stories that reinforced their viewpoints and disbelieve news stories which contradicted their viewpoints. (Not all that surprising, I guess, but interesting to see it confirmed.)

In other research, Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell University, found that both university students and academics believed themselves to be more successful that was the case - for example, 94 per cent of college professors thought they were doing a "better-than-average job" (when obviously only about half of them can do better than average).

Examples of 'blindness' to facts

Dickson then gives some examples where people commonly hold views contrary to the evidence. For example, religious and other conservative people tend to:

  • deny the growing evidence that physiological factors are behind sexual orientation; and
  • refuse to accept the strong scientific evidence that biological evolution has occurred.

On the other hand, non-believers also tend to:

  • deny the strong evidence that religious believers are far more likely to give time and money to charities, preferring to argue that religion has a bad effect on people; and
  • hold that Jesus either never lived, or that the stories about him are legends, despite the fact that most historians, believer and unbeliever alike, accept that Jesus' life "unfolded pretty much as the Gospels say it did".

Why we believe

Dickson believes that the observations of ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, are still relevant today. Aristotle suggested there were three factors in coming to an opinion:

  1. logos - rational reasons, based on reality or evidence and perceived by our intellect;
  2. pathos - our emotional or psychological response, what attracts us or we hope is true;
  3. ethos - the social dimension - we tend to be more influenced by people we like and respect.


It is obvious that all these factors influence us to some degree, with different people more or less influenced by the different factors. But the question remains, what should we aim for?

Religious believers are sometimes criticised for believing 'on faith', rather than because of the evidence. Many atheists claim to make their decisions on evidence (logos) alone, and doubtless try to do so. But if Dickson is right, the gap is probably not as wide as is sometimes claimed. Believers as well as unbelievers are influenced by what they want to be true, what is attractive to them, and by the opinions of people they respect.

I am left with these thoughts:

  • We cannot ever know all the facts ourselves, and our intellects are not perfect. Sometimes we need to draw on the views of people we respect (ethos).
  • Some decisions have no clear answers, and we may need to rely on our sense of fitness (pathos). Many scientists say that they perceive the correct solution of a problem from its mathematical 'fitness' long before they can prove it.
  • Recognition of all three factors seems to be a more human approach than isolating only reason. It may be better to recognise and account for these disparate influences than to deny them.
  • Aristotle's observations help to better understand the christian view that belief is based on evidence and faith together, instead of assuming reason and faith are opposed.
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