THINGS DON’T MAKE SENSE
Maybe it’s due to the persistent drumbeat of bad news. Or perhaps social media has messed up our brains. It could even be the fault of the pandemic which has pushed some of us over the edge. Whatever the cause, the world seems to have gone a bit bonkers. We have lost our collective minds and our ability to make intelligent judgements.
Humans, of course, have always been notorious for making irrational decisions. Irrespective, poor choices have become a mental contagion which has infected normally sane people and fuelled a growing disconnect between fact and fiction. An increasing number of us embrace conspiracy theories, reject scientific consensus, elect populist leaders, and promote wacky cures.
Even the smartest among us have moments when common sense escapes them, but things have got out of hand. During these uncommon times, illogical thinking has come to the fore in the face of uncertainty. Uncertainty causes our brains to overact and many of us have capitulated to irrational fear. Fear, in turn, influences our risk assessments by overestimating threats.
Fear can become problematic when it’s disproportionate to the actual risk faced, such as with COVID-19 vaccines. Despite irrefutable scientific evidence to the contrary, millions have embraced the misleading claims and outright lies about the safety of COVID inoculations. This misinformation has largely been spread on social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Unquestionably, vaccinations are one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine and have turned many childhood diseases into distant memories. Like all vaccines, COVID shots were proven to be safe and effective through rigorous testing processes. Even so, anti-vaxxers have been unwilling to roll up their sleeves for a jab – because they are fearful.
Vaccine deniers have been spooked by the spurious and unsupported claims about COVID vaccines including that they: contain microchips for government tracking; include metals and other problematic ingredients; alter your DNA and stunt fertility; and have caused widespread death and disease. It’s even claimed that the pandemic is a ruse by big pharmaceutical companies to profiteer off a vaccine.
While these conspiracy theories might seem harmless, they demonstrate a detachment from verifiable reality that can cause someone to believe almost anything. To paraphrase a headline in The New York Times, the real horror of anti-vaxxers is that their behaviour isn’t just a public health crisis – it’s a public sanity one.
Another group that clings to beliefs which are at odds with conventional scientific thought are climate change sceptics. These sceptics hold a range of views including outright denial (it’s a hoax) to interpretive denial (it’s not a threat). This latter form of denial causes people to reframe climate change as natural and climate action as unwarranted. Thus, they do not contest the facts but interpret them in ways that distort their importance.
Humans instinctively push back against or completely reject facts that are contrary to their beliefs and this cognitive bias (the backfire effect) impacts how new information is processed. On the other hand, humans look for evidence which supports what they already believe to be true and this causes them to give credence to data which confirms that their view is right (confirmation bias).
These two cognitive biases work in tandem and help explain why climate deniers (a) ignore the hundreds of studies which show that humans are responsible for climate change and (b) latch on to the one study that they can find which casts doubt on human culpability arising from anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.
Many believe that the catastrophic framing of climate change is self-defeating as it alienates people. I agree that doomsday scenarios don’t inspire action among deniers and also accept that merely talking about evidence or data does not change the mind of a sceptic.
So, I was drawn to a story in The New York Times which is void of scare tactics. The feature story, The Science of Climate Change Explained: Facts, Evidence and Proof, is written by a journalist with a PhD in geology. She calmly and pragmatically explains what will happen if we fail to address climate change – well worth a read.
Beyond vaccines and climate change, large swaths of humanity still snub science when it comes to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The beginning of the Earth, along with the birth of humans, remains a contentious issue between creationists and evolutionists. These protagonists continue to debate whether life on Earth was created in the blink of an eye or whether it evolved over millions of years.
Creationists insist that everything in nature was created by a deity who formed all life over a period of six days, as described in the Book of Genesis. Evolutionists reject this assertion by biblical literalists, citing scientific evidence showing that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that all life evolved from primitive, single cell organisms.
To any evolutionary biologist, creationism is ludicrous. But to millions of creationists, particularly those in America’s Bible Belt, God remains the supernatural “intelligent designer” of the universe. The clashes between creationists and biologists can be explained, as noted in one article, through the lens of confirmation bias.
The latter (biologists) use scientific evidence and experimentation to reveal the process of biological evolution over millions of years. The former (creationists) see the Bible as being true in the literal sense and think the world is only a few thousand years old. Creationists are skilled at mitigating the cognitive dissonance caused by factual evidence that disproves their ideas. Many consider the non-empirical “evidence” for their beliefs (such as spiritual experiences and the existence of scripture) to be of greater value than the empirical evidence for evolution.
Debating creationists is a slippery slope as they do not adhere to facts or logic. What is scientific fact for evolutionists is irreverent blasphemy for creationists. As creationism argues that faith should take precedence over science, there is little hope for enlightenment – the scientific worldview is unlikely to ever supplant a creationist one. Well may we say “let there be light”!
Belief in ideas that have clearly been disproven by science remains widespread around the world. Rejecting scientific consensus has given rise to scientific denialism (dubbed the anti-enlightenment movement) and it has moved from the fringes to the centre of public discourse. An article in the international science journal, Nature, put it this way:
Science deniers – whether on vaccines, evolution or climate – all draw on the same flawed reasoning techniques: cherry-picking evidence, relying on conspiracy theories and fake experts, engaging in illogical reasoning and insisting that science must be perfect.
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We view our ancestors as being blinkered by myth and superstition yet see ourselves as reasoned and enlightened. However, for all our advancement as a species, humans still behave irrationally. You just have to witness the global rise of a new political culture based on emotion and fear, in lieu of fact and policy, to know that something is wrong.
Perhaps there is no better example of this political irrationality than the election of Donald Trump which left millions of people around the world perplexed. His campaign – described in one critique as “a toxic mix of exaggerations, lies, fearmongering, xenophobia and sex scandal” – succeeded in elevating an unsuitable and unpopular nominee to the office of president.
Irrationality has defined much of human life and history and will continue to do so. We make irrational decisions with regular monotony such as stripping supermarket shelves bare of toilet paper during a pandemic. As I explored in a recent post, How our lives are shaped by the choices we make, our reasoning processes are imperfect and this leads to poor choices.
To suggest that humans are rational is an irrational idea.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer