Belief Is Biased: It's Vital to Know How Our Values Trump Logic

By Ingram, Jay | Alternatives Journal, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

Belief Is Biased: It's Vital to Know How Our Values Trump Logic


Ingram, Jay, Alternatives Journal


SOME of the most important controversies we face today are those with a scientific underpinning but a public consequence. Anthropogenic climate change, GMOs and nuclear power are among them. The curious feature of these so-called "scientific" controversies is that most members of the public take a stance, pro or con, without regard for the data.

To put it another way, the science really isn't that important. Instead, a set of social and cultural values determine whether citizens will, for instance, accept that we are changing the climate and vow to do something about it, or instead argue that climate fluctuations are natural and we would be foolish to do anything.

With a set of straightforward survey questions, individuals can be categorized on two key social axes. One axis runs from individualism at one end to communitarian at the other; the second from hierarchical to egalitarian. The Cultural Cognition Project, a US-based group of research scholars specializing in psychology, risk assessment and law, have done experiments that show your position on these axes is a good predictor of where you'll cast your lot in these controversies.

For instance, those who tend to he hierarchical (satisfied that the stratification of society is not a had thing, and it may even be natural) and individualistic (preferring to be responsible only for themselves) do not believe in anthropogenic climate change. You might characterize such people as libertarians. You might also notice that two famous climate change dissidents, Alberta's Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith and Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, are both self-proclaimed libertarians. Of course, this fact could be correlation, not causation.

That's why experiments are important. They reinforce that these cultural perspectives all track closely with beliefs in climate change. If you're an individualist, the last thing you want is more government interference in your life--like carbon taxes. On the other hand, egalitarian communitarians--inherently distrustful of industry and big commerce, fearful that the oil companies are stifling debate--believe that we are pushing the climate to a tipping point.

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. Tire membership ensures that everyone shares the same values, and that they all resist challenges to those values. …

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