The Neuroscience of Anti-Science Activists

Illustration for article titled The Neuroscience of Anti-Science Activists

When confronted with facts that contradict our beliefs, there's a solid evolutionary reason why we double down and refuse to change our minds. It's called "motivated reasoning," and it suggests that rationality is always a process of rationalization.


Writing in Mother Jones, Chris Mooney describes the "science of why we don't believe science":

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): 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.

Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. "They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs," says Taber, "and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they're hearing."

In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing.

Read the rest via Mother Jones on Medium

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Zippy Zanderhoff

It's more than "retrieving thoughts", it's reasoning in a way that applies more scrutiny to an argument or statement we want to find fault in. Just take a look in any article, and you'll find that the commenters quickest to point out methodological errors, logical fallacies, etc. are the ones who weren't willing to accept the article's assertion in the first place. We apply every grain of scrutiny to something we want to disbelieve, while giving a "free pass" to stuff we wish to accept.