Why We Deny

| Mon Apr. 18, 2011 10:33 PM PDT

I've always known that facts and evidence don't generally affect people's opinions much. But possibly the worst aspect of blogging for the past nine years is that now I really, really know it. I have my face rubbed in it every day. That's a different, and far more discouraging thing, than simply knowing it in an abstract, intellectual sort of way. But Chris Mooney comes to the rescue today, putting this all back into the realm of the abstract and using science to explain why science persuades so few people:

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

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.

Read the rest for the whole story. But be prepared to be annoyed when Chris wrenches his spine out of shape bending over backward to find an example of liberals denying science as much as conservatives. It might be true that you can find vaccine deniers in the aisles of Whole Foods, but if there's any rigorous evidence that belief in the vaccine-autism link is especially pronounced or widespread among liberals, I haven't seen it. Surely there's a better, more substantive example than that floating around somewhere?

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.