The elusive connection we have to truth

DenialPerhaps it’s always been this way; humankind has been more motivated by emotions than reason and the primary emotion that generates beliefs is fear. The more that we’re driven by fear the less space we have in our brains to try to deal rationally with issues.

Two recent items from very different parts of the world struck me as providing evidence for this contention.

Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain and The Republican War on Science, wrote an article in the December 2, 2015 edition of the Washington Post entitled “This is why sowing doubt about climate change is such an effective strategy.” He begins:

For some time, social science researchers have been studying an oddity about the U.S. — compared with many other nations, we’re a hotbed of global warming doubt and denial. Accordingly, and to counteract this, a variety of messages or ways of “re-framing” the issue have been proposed, often with the goal of appealing to the ideology of political conservatives, which is where most of the doubt lies.

He cites a study of Americans reading various newspaper accounts of climate change. He summarizes the findings as:

“while the positive messages weren’t particularly impactful, the negative message was considerably more powerful in changing people’s beliefs when it was present. In an overall comparison between those who read articles containing the negative message and those who read articles that didn’t, the negative message led to less belief that global warming is real or that climate science is reliable, and also lessened participants’ support for climate change solutions.

“It’s not that the denial counter-frame is more powerful when matched with one type of positive frame versus another, it just has a consistent effect over all the subjects,”

The negative framing utilized arguments that played on fear of legislation by liberals and that addressing climate change would be bad for the U.S. economy.

The day before Mooney’s article, Liz Sly wrote an article in the Washington Post entitled, “Iraqis think the U.S. is in cahoots with the Islamic State, and it is hurting the war.” She reports from Baiji, Iraq:

On the front lines of the battle against the Islamic State, suspicion of the United States runs deep. Iraqi fighters say they have all seen the videos purportedly showing U.S. helicopters airdropping weapons to the militants, and many claim they have friends and relatives who have witnessed similar instances of collusion.

Ordinary people also have seen the videos, heard the stories and reached the same conclusion — one that might seem absurd to Americans but is widely believed among Iraqis — that the United States is supporting the Islamic State for a variety of pernicious reasons that have to do with asserting U.S. control over Iraq, the wider Middle East and, perhaps, its oil.

In the interest of balanced reporting, we must say that perhaps the suspicions of many Iraqi fighters are correct. However, it seems that such a view can only be seen through highly conspiratorial lenses. Regardless of how much U.S. policy may have unintentionally benefited ISIL, it seems rather preposterous that the U.S. is directly supply the Islamic State with weapons and other supplies. But apparently that is what many Iraqis have come to believe. As Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister said in denying the Holocaust, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Obviously that can only happen when people either do not have access to facts or choose to ignore them.

It is indeed a frightening world when so many people, particularly Americans, deny the truth or importance of climate change. When the Iraqi soldiers in opposition to ISIL think that the U.S. is helping their opponent, that too is frightening. And all of this is happening when a large minority of Americans, mainly Republicans, think that “our prayers and thoughts” are the best answer to gun violence in the U.S.

Of course, by stating that these misperceptions of others are frightening, I run the risk of my own arguments being motivated by fear. It’s quite a struggle for all of us to balance our emotions with our powers of reason. It just seems that some of us are more aware of this conflict than others, and the ones who deny the conflict often are weak at trying to secure the closest thing we can find to the truth.