Having a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Especially when you don’t know how your knowledge fits into the bigger picture. Often critics will misuse a bit of knowledge trusting that the type of people who listen to them are too lazy to find the truth. Flat earth advocates fall into this category. They slam all the rest of humanity by presenting facts out of context and by dismissing other more obvious facts without logical cause. For example, a popular argument of flat earthers is, if the earth were a ball, then when you flew around to the bottom to visit Australia, you would fall off the planet because, according to their logic, you would be upside down. The obvious fact they ignore, of course, is that the earth itself has gravity pulls everything towards it, and that gravity is the same on all surfaces of the globe no matter where you are. Ask them what causes them to fall downwards if not gravity, they have no answer. To them, it is all magic.
I find this problem persists in all areas and specialties. Someone finds out that some universities in Europe are free and wonder why we have to pay for them here in Canada. Wouldn’t it be great, they argue, because free university would solve all their problems. Others read that vaccines cause autism, but they fail to read the research by qualified experts to learn why the link does not exist. Someone on social media tried to convince me that toothpaste is poisonous because it contains fluoride which is fatal. Yes, it is, but so are carbon and oxygen. It comes down to quantity. All elements on the periodic table can kill you, and all are needed to keep you alive. But without fluoride in your body, you will get very sick. A bit of knowledge (fluoride is fatal) without context (when taken in huge quantities, but in small quantities it is beneficial) is very dangerous.
The question remains, are the purveyors of such partial facts being intentionally deceptive or willfully ignorant? From my experience, they are so entrenched in their belief that they have back themselves into a corner and have to be on the defensive all the time. Rather than consider the facts for what they are, they spend their time finding reasons to reject the facts. They are blinded by their own preconceived ideas.
In the 1950’s, Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger made the observation “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” We have him to thank for the concept of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance. Festinger observed a small religious movement that were convinced aliens were coming to take them away before God destroyed the earth. They quit their jobs, sold all their assets, and even removed all metal from their clothing because it would interfere with the workings of the alien spaceship. Festinger sat with them on the night that the aliens were to arrive hoping that they would follow a more rational thought pattern when the aliens did not arrive. Arrive they did not, change their faith they did not. Rather than acknowledging their error, they became even more convinced of their belief by changing the message. God had spared the planet due to their unflinching faith. His findings were published in his book “When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World”
Today we call it ‘motivated reasoning’. This is defined as “reasoning through reliance on a biased set of cognitive processes-that is, strategies for accessing, constructing, and evaluating beliefs.” I meet people who reason through their biases all the time: angry at the government, distrusting of engineers, sceptical of lawyers, antagonistic towards police and on it goes. They have made up their narrow mind on a matter and refuse to consider that they might be wrong. The more the evidence is stacked up against them, the more entrenched they become. I met a person once who was so convinced they were right that rather than deal with the truth, they sold their property and moved away.
In 2016 Bill Nye the Science Guy was in a broadcasted debate with young earth creationist Ken Ham. Ken was unmoved in his convictions for the simple reason that Bill stuck to scientific fact and failed to appeal to Ken’s ‘biased set of cognitive processes’. When I heard about the pending debate, I wrote Bill a letter advising him on how to win over the young earther with an appeal to the bible; or more importantly, with an appeal to his values. Bill did not respond, but his Seattle Washington post office box was likely inundated with letters from both side of the argument. Bill went into the debate, unfortunately, with his own biases that prevented him from accomplishing what he set out to do because he failed to present his argument in a way that young earthers would understand, in a way that would not threaten their cognitive processes.
We all hold to our values and we perceive and understand facts through the lenses of our beliefs and values. In the New Testament, Paul referred to this as looking through a glass darkly (1 Cor 4:12) We all do it and ironically, we all think that we are the one trying to break through the cognitive dissonance of our opponent. We all think we are an expert in whatever opinion we are espousing despite our lack of academic qualifications. By reaching out to the common ground of values and being open minded to new ideas, however, it is much easier to get the facts across. Every aha moment I have had has been through such an approach.
In the paper Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus by Dan Kahan, Hank Jenkins-Smith and Donald Braman, they explain the effects of cultural cognition on our assessment of facts. What they found is that public debates about scientific findings such as climate change is not an open resistance, but rather a disagreement as to what the scientists are actually telling them. Cultural cognition, they explain, is “the tendency of individuals to fit their perceptions of risk and related factual beliefs to their shared moral evaluations of putatively dangerous activities.” That is, people perceive behaviors that they see as honorable to be beneficial to society and behaviors that are dishonorable as bad.
In their study, they created a fake survey of made up made up experts to determine if ‘the likelihood of agreement that the featured author was a trustworthy and knowledgeable expert and would be conditional on the fit between the author’s assigned position and the subjects’ own cultural predispositions on the issue in question”. The results were striking but not anything we do not already know.
Essentially the test group they identify as hierarchal individuals could not accept that the things they value such as capitalism, industry, or the right to possess guns could in any way be harmful to society while those they identify as egalitarian communitarians could not accept that free market, patriarchal families and guns can ever be good for society. Neither side is anti-science, they just interpret the science according to their preconceived ideas. Neither those on the right nor those on the left want to consider that the other side may have anything of value to say.
What adds to the problem is, since the lay person cannot understand the research, they try to find an expert that can explain it for them; unfortunately we are not very good at identifying what an expert is. Many tend to turn to their minister, their rich uncle, or their favorite news site. And thus we have people who believe toothpaste and vaccines are poisons, and the earth is flat. Kahan’s paper concludes on this positive note: “In order to assure open-minded consideration of scientific findings, they must strive to present it in a way that avoids making it needlessly threatening to the identities of one or another group of culturally diverse citizens”.
I think this is where Bill Nye failed. He presented science and did not consider the cultural sensitivities of those who reject evolution on religious grounds. Instead of defending science, he ended up rejecting the religious heritage of the very people he was trying to reach. His efforts were doomed from the start. No matter what he said, the lines of communication were closed. Rather than arguing from the position of science, he should have argued from the position of the bible to show that the bible does not contradict the science. The same is true for flat earthers who take the so called logic of young earthers to a whole new level. I am somehow less inclined to help the flat earthers out of their cloud of ignorance however, because I find their Youtube videos to be so strangely entertaining.