During a recent discussions with my (devoutly Catholic and highly intelligent) mother, we touched on the question of proving the existence of things that cannot be observed scientifically. I wish I could recall the entire conversation for you here, but one of her questions was, “If you were asked for proof that I love you, could you give it?” Meaning that love–which she sees as a very real thing and more than just synapses and chemicals reacting in the brain–cannot be proven, but it still exists. You can guess that she wished to illustrate that God can exist while we cannot scientifically observe or test it.
All that to say … I just read a highly fascinating article called “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science” on why scientific findings can be so thorough and so solid, yet there are still those who will argue against overwhelming evidence and hold tightly to anti-scientific beliefs. You may find it as enlightening as I did. I even see this behavior in myself, so don’t go thinking all atheists claim to be rational and without bias, now.
… [A]n array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president (PDF), and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.
We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.
That’s not to suggest that we aren’t also motivated to perceive the world accurately—we are. Or that we never change our minds—we do. It’s just that we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.
Modern science originated from an attempt to weed out such subjective lapses—what that great 17th century theorist of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, dubbed the “idols of the mind.” Even if individual researchers are prone to falling in love with their own theories, the broader processes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism are designed to ensure that, eventually, the best ideas prevail.
Read more on MotherJones.
Bonus: Creationist cartoons!