July 26, 2010

When I encounter facts that run contrary to my beliefs, I embrace the facts and abandon my beliefs. I wish the rest of the world was like me.

I was around eight years old when the evidence against Santa Claus became too overwhelming for me to continue believing in him. My arrogant and dickheadedly precocious mind had figured out that it would be physically impossible for Santa to fit enough toys for all the world’s children on a single sleigh and then deliver them over the course of one night. After hammering at this line of questioning with my mother, she finally relented and admitted she”€™d been lying to me for eight years about Santa Claus.

I didn”€™t enjoy learning she”€™d lied to me. And I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

I was around sixteen when I stopped believing in Jesus Christ as my savior. I reached the point where I”€™d read enough of the Bible to realize it contained several items that couldn”€™t possibly be true simultaneously. For instance, no infallible God would establish an “€œeternal”€ covenant, only to change His mind, revoke it later, and then suddenly pull a New Covenant out of his ass. A perfect God simply wouldn”€™t roll like that.

I was angry learning I”€™d been lied to about Jesus. And so I ceased being a Christian.

I was in my late twenties when I stopped identifying myself as a liberal. When evidence started mounting that shot machine-gun holes through the block of liberal cheese I”€™d purchased at the local liberal co-op, I concluded that liberalism was not a logically consistent belief system.

But it wasn”€™t only liberal illogic that caused me to dump the whole program”€”much of it had to do with gradual changes in liberal attitudes and behavior. I”€™m old enough to remember when liberals were free-speech absolutists and conservatives tended to be the book-burners. But historical forces can blur, erase, and often invert party lines.

Over the years, I watched as liberals slowly became the group most likely to flat-out refuse discussing certain topics and answering certain questions, their purportedly “€œopen”€ minds snapping shut like a giant clam. They became the group most likely to try and silence their opponents by shouting them down, defaming them, assaulting them, and even urging legislation to ban the use and expression of certain terms and sentiments. They became the group most disposed toward emotional appeals, double standards, wishful thinking, and wretchedly malodorous sanctimony.

Up through my teens and twenties, I had considered liberals to be the most open-minded and free-thinking group in America, only to watch them morph into the most ideologically rigid pack of true believers I”€™d ever seen. With modern American liberalism, it’s as if their cute, multicolored, and sincerely curious little 1960s caterpillar had blossomed into a hardened grey butterfly fossil. Liberalism had become an emotion-driven folk religion that somehow had convinced itself science and logic were on its side.

These days, I suppose I”€™d rather hang out with conservatives than liberals, if only for the fact that I offend conservatives less, and it’s a drag to hang out with people who are always getting offended.

And unless I suffer from blind, chronic denial, I like to believe that my political journey has been free of the cognitive dissonance that afflicts ideologues of every stripe.

A study recently published in Political Behavior addresses the topic of cognitive dissonance as it regards political beliefs. Titled “€œWhen Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions,”€ it is an amended version of a paper originally presented at the 2006 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.

The study, written by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, focused on four separate experiments in which college students were presented with mock news articles containing items of misinformation that were subsequently “€œcorrected”€ by the researchers, who presented the students with hard evidence that contradicted the initially bungled facts. The researchers found that being fed corrective information failed to budge their subjects”€™ opinions and that, disturbingly, it often caused them to strengthen their erroneous beliefs. The researchers refer to this defensive tendency to double-up on disproved beliefs as the “€œbackfire effect.”€

This troubling phenomenon”€”of people stubbornly believing what has been certified as unbelievable”€”is as old as humanity. A farmer named William Miller gained religious followers by predicting the world’s end in 1843. When it didn”€™t end and he didn”€™t lose any followers, he predicted it would end in 1844. When that didn”€™t happen, his cult only gained believers instead of withering away. It still exists today and is known as Seventh Day Adventism.

In his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, author Leon Festinger infiltrated another cult that claimed to have nailed down Doomsday’s exact date. When Doomsday came and went without doom, the cultists were duped into believing space aliens had granted a reprieve in order to allow the cult to spread their mission. Naturally, the cult only gained strength. Twenty years later, a book called The Psychic Mafia detailed the imbecility of a group who refused to believe that a psychic named Raoul was a fraud even though Raoul himself admitted as much to them. The book’s author, M. Lamar Keene, wrote, “€œI knew how easy it was to make people believe a lie, but I didn’t expect the same people, confronted with the lie, would choose it over the truth….No amount of logic can shatter a faith consciously based on a lie.”€

Although Nyhan and Reifler’s recent study takes a few token stabs at objectivity, it stinks a bit of what is known as Expectation Bias, seeing as the authors repeatedly make a distinction between “€œconservatives”€ and “€œmore knowledgable subjects”€ and suggest that their study “€œmay provide support for the hypothesis that conservatives are especially dogmatic.”€

However, I like to cut slack where slack deserves to be cut, so I should mention that the authors tossed in the following: “€œIt would also be helpful to test additional corrections of liberal misperceptions.”€

I agree that it would be helpful. I propose an additional study where subjects are read the following factual statements, most of which directly contradict prominent liberal misinformation:

“€¢ Communist governments killed perhaps a hundred million more people than the Nazis did.

“€¢ Women commit acts of domestic violence at a higher rate than men do.

“€¢ Blacks commit interracial violence at a rate far in excess of their representation in the general population.

“€¢ Sex has a lot to do with rape.

“€¢ Race is a biologically quantifiable reality in addition to something that can be manipulated as a social construct.

“€¢ Black-on-black murders in the USA every year are roughly double the total number of blacks lynched in America throughout history.

“€¢ Islam is far more misogynistic and anti-Semitic than most white male Christians are.

“€¢ There is not a shred of evidence to support the idea of innate cognitive and physical equality between human ethnic groups.

“€¢ Many of the nations that wound up being colonized were not innately peaceful and were only subjugated due to their inferior defensive technology.

“€¢ Collective, intergenerational guilt is a fantasy that doesn”€™t exist.

“€¢ The ends do not justify the means.

How would most self-identified leftists react to such “€œcorrective information”€? Would they immediately alter their beliefs? If my suspicions are correct, they”€™d be displaying the “€œbackfire effect”€ like it was fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Conservative or liberal, the documented reality of human cognitive dissonance does not bode well for the idea of democracy, because a well-informed public doesn”€™t stick to the facts when it doesn”€™t quite care for them or doesn”€™t have the brain power to process them rationally.

That’s why I don”€™t look right or left”€”only up and down. When I look down, I see hard-line ideologues and weak-willed compromisers. When I look up, I see skeptics, who are our only hope. Skepticism and curiosity, not Jesus and Mary, are what made the West great. We need to elevate our skeptics and demote our ideologues. Our national motto should be “€œDon”€™t stop disbelievin”€™.”€

I feel this way because refusing to allow emotion to rule over logic is of tremendous emotional importance to me. One should never have the courage of their convictions”€”they should have the courage to abandon their convictions to find some newer, better convictions once their convictions have been proved wrong.

And that’s why I”€™m no longer a liberal.


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