Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Crazy" Beliefs and what to do about them

It seems to me that in recent years people are much more up in arms about the things they believe.  Maybe it's been like this all along and I've only reached the point in my life where I've noticed it.  Or perhaps, when I was younger, I was surrounded by people from my self-same demographic, and have encountered more people with differing views as I have become more mature.  
Whatever the reason, I have been struck more and more by how people can fervently believe things which do not seem to be supported by the evidence at large.  Pick any current 'hot button' issue, global warming, evolution, gay marriage, immigration, and you will find people who will profess with complete confidence that the other side is not only wrong, but are deliberately trying to fool the general population into sharing their beliefs.  This was underscored recently for me while I was reading an online article about global warming at one of the science journals I frequent.  After reading the article I started reading the comments.  In the very first comment, the poster referred to the author of the article as conducting a 'witch hunt,' and compared the author with the 'pessimistic doomsayers of the seventies' (the article was one which accepted the idea of global warming being caused by human activities).  
My assumption was that people like me who spent their time reading online science journals would at least be open minded to the point where, if they didn't agree with a conclusion being presented, would ask for explanation of the an author's thesis or offer counter evidence of their own.  But even within such a community of those interested in science there appears to be a growing willingness to shout out, "you're wrong, you're wrong, you are wrong!" and rejected even the logic of someone else's argument.  
Any discussion about changing mores of behavior, while applicable, I will leave for another time.  But I am left to wonder, on a deeper level, how is it that people come to believe the things that they do, even if such beliefs fly in the face of what seems to be a reasonable explanation?  
"Maybe they just don't get it," is the first explanation that comes to mind, especially when it pertains to some scientific issue.  Surely for someone to refuse to accept something like evolution, for instance, it must be because they do not fully understand the arguments in its favor, or have been misinformed about said arguments.  I have often been at pains to explain to someone who has said something along the lines of, "evolution is just a theory," that a theory, in scientific parlance, is actually something more robust than a mere fact.  It is a way of collecting and organizing facts in such a way that we understand why the facts are facts, and what new facts are out there waiting to be discovered.  It seems reasonable to assume, when encountering resistance to an accepted theory, that if you explained it in a reasonable way a reasonable person would understand and accept it.  
Unfortunately, research in cognitive psychology doesn't support that assumption.  Tania Lombrozo, a professor at UC Berkeley focusing on cognition, brain and behavior, referenced in a Scientific American podcast a study focusing on people's acceptance of evolution.  What she found was that there was no correlation between an understanding of the concepts and arguments presented in favor of evolution with its acceptance in the study group.  Someone who understood the concepts and arguments of evolution was just as likely to reject it as accept it when viewed on that criteria alone.  And while her survey did show a correlation between one's religious denomination and acceptance of evolution (people self-identified as 'Born Again Christians' were much more likely to reject the premise), there was no correlation between the strength of one religious conviction and an acceptance of evolution.  
Along these same lines, I saw a recent news item on television about a recent meeting of the American Meteorological Society where members where hotly debating global warming.  The argument appeared to be more about the source of the rising temperatures, whether it was from man-made causes or not, but it still seems odd to me that such an argument can even exist amongst professionals trained to study the topic.  
So, if understanding the topic doesn't correlate to an acceptance of specific belief, then what does?
"Purpose on the Brain."  This is the phrase used by Richard Dawkins, the well-known British ethologist and popular science writer, to describe how the brain approaches the events that impact us on a daily basis.  Humans have an evolutionary predisposition to look for 'reasons' or 'purposes' behind things that happen to us.  
For example, let's go back in time and visit two cavemen, Ugh and Ogg.  Ugh and Ogg are far away from the cave network their hunter/gatherer group has staked out for themselves.  They are working on this idea Ugh had for this round, spinning thing that they could use to carry their spears and animal carcasses (Ugh wants to call it the 'roundus-transportus,' but Ogg wants to call it the 'wheel' after 'Wheela' the prettiest girl in the tribe whom he wants to attract).  
While working on their invention, they hear a sound in the bushes.  Ogg, without doing any investigation, thinks, "It's a Saber-toothed tiger wanting to kill and eat me!" and immediately sets off running back to the cave.  Ugh, however, thinks, "I wonder what that sound is?" and then sticks his head through the bush to find out.  
From an evolutionary standpoint, Ogg's lineage has the advantage.  If there is nothing behind the bush, if it was just the wind rattling the leaves, then everything is even.  Both Ogg and Ugh are fine and their chances of having offspring remain equal, or at least dependent on other factors.  But if it really were a hungry saber-toothed tiger behind the bush, then Ogg's immediate assumption that the event was something dangerous directed toward him gives him a survival advantage that can result in a greater opportunity in mating by virtue of being alive.  And since I don't go the auto shop to have my 'roundus-transportuses' realigned, we can guess who was it that won out.  
Supporting this 'purposefully brain' concept is another study referenced by Dr. Lombrozo in her interview.  A group of children were chosen as a study group were given a series of questions and presented two answers.  One was a logical answer and the other was ontological, one which provided a purpose or reason.  For the question, "Why does it rain?" the children were asked to choose either, "Because water in the air gets heavy and falls," or "Because it helps the flowers grow," the children would overwhelmingly choose the second answer, "Because it helps the flowers grow," the one which had a purpose contained within it.  
Supporting this perception of purpose in the world is the fact that human beings tend to forget the times their assumptions of purpose were proven wrong.  Sure, Ogg may have ran away ten times he heard that noise in the bushes, and Ugh teased him every time, but it was the last incident when it really was a saber-tooth tiger that he talked about over the campfire to his children and grandchildren while lamenting his departed friend, Ugh.  
A more disciplined example can be found in a study by Pete Palmer, author of the Hidden Book of Baseball.  In 1990 he conducted a study of players considered to be 'clutch' hitters, ones who performed better in high pressure situations (team behind by three runs in the ninth with the bases loaded).  In comparing the hitters 'clutch' stats (the ability to get a hit under pressure) with a random distribution, he found no difference between the two.  Another study, in 1985, which analyzed basketball shooters having a 'hot hand' late in the game was able to show that the percentage of shots made during the last two minutes of a game was the same as any other two minute period selected throughout the game.  The only difference was that, late in the game, the team's best player, their 'clutch' player, was fed the ball more often, thus allowing him to score more points.  We remember Kobe's last minute three pointer to win the championship, the evening news won't let us forget it, but we forget the shot he missed in the same situation two nights before that allowed the series to be tied up.  
So...  What does all this mean?
As a person with opinions of my own, and a citizen, it means two things.  Number one, I can't assume (or shouldn't assume) that someone who disagrees with me is 'not thinking right.'  Sure, that might actually be the case, and it may certainly feel that way from the start of the argument, but the science that's out there doesn't support the idea that he or she "just doesn't get it."  Better to assume that I'm in debate with someone who is fully capable of understanding what I'm getting at and let him prove me wrong if such is the case.  
The second conclusion, and the one that is more sobering, is that the effort to prove one's case is an ongoing one. I would guess that the vast majority of people out there don't take the time to wonder about how they came to believe something.  They simply believe it.  It 'feels right' to them.  And if that belief is related to some topic of importance to everyone, such as dealing with the effects of global warming or teaching evolution in our schools, I have to realize that there may be no definite conclusion to the argument.  A certain number of my fellow citizens will simply not accept my conclusions, and efforts to convince others to my side to take whatever action I think is appropriate will be one I will have to continue.  
As a writer, it tells me that when I write my stories that touch on such issues I should look more carefully at the characters on the other side of the argument.  It may be easy to present them as boobs, or people who "simply don't understand," but it won't be realistic.  Furthermore, giving such a character intelligence and logic, even if he reaches conclusions I don't agree with, will give the main character a more complicated  obstacle to overcome with greater pitfalls.  And doing so will give me the opportunity to write deeper, richer and more complex stories. 
At least, that's what I believe...
News  & Updates
I'm still working on "Long Ride."  I was lamenting to some friends from my online writing group that it feels at times like this story will never get finished.  I do think that I'm missing something and that by jotting down various scenes and what I know about the story I will stumble across it.  
I did start work on another story, under the working title "Brother Like Me."  I got the idea from one of my writing friends I had lunch with yesterday.  I told them a story of an unusual meeting I had with someone on my trip to Japan in 2007 and one of them declared, 'there's a story in that!'  
It looks like they were right.  I just started punching it out to see where it would go and got about 13 pages done in one session (around 2,800 words).  I have the ending in mind and should have it finished by the end of the week (thanks, Donna!).


Blogger D. said...

I hope you're happy with your new story!

June 1, 2010 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

Thanks, Donna. I'll let you know how it goes.

June 6, 2010 at 2:06 PM  

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