Friday, August 10, 2012

How Can Smart People Be So Wrong?

The Flying, Anchise Picci (1982)
This morning I was thinking about cases where otherwise smart people believe crazy things.  I wonder if the common variable isn't the degree to which they have a strong ideological "feeling" about something.  We've seen cases where enormously smart/educated people seem immune to facts - anthropogenic climate change deniers, vaccine skeptics, creationists.  In some sense, one wonders if their intelligence doesn't allow them to create ever more elaborate rationalizations.

I'm not sure what that "feeling" really is.  It's obviously an unconscious bias; it's as if their reasoning is a rope you follow along until you come to a dark cave, beyond which there is nothing but darkness.  This is the point at which conscious reason disappears.

Yet we can find interesting patterns when we zoom out and examine the larger context of their ideology.  There are correlations between the likelihood of specific beliefs and larger attitudes.  Religious fundamentalists might be the easiest to understand, because they have a scriptural interpretation that they insist is the final authority.  It becomes more difficult when dealing with something like homeopathy, or 9/11 "truthers" where there is no specific scripture they are required to obey. 

But maybe these two aren't so dissimilar.  What if we assumed that scriptural fundamentalism wasn't really about the text, but rather about a socially normative relationship between one and their community - friends, family, congregants, pastor, etc.?  We could assume the same about the homeopathist.  They too are following certain communal norms.  A striking commonality among these groups is how frequently they live in an insular world, in which they are rarely challenged.  And when they are, it is likely by someone who is an "outsider" to their special community.  Immediately, they are a "traitor to the cause".

So, I think we're getting to tribal and identity politics, which largely exist at the unconscious level. 

Maybe something interesting to think about is the individual who is allergic to these sort of ideological "feelings", those who seem to be reasonable and level-headed, better able to think objectively.  They too might live within insular communities, yet somehow don't feel the same strong sense of allegiance that promotes unconscious tribal bias.  How is it that they have been able to establish within themselves a sense of comfort with breaking tribal norms?  Do they have some special self-esteem?  Do they not feel the same fears?

In thinking about myself, I am objectively a pretty reasonable person - at least in terms of your standard political bogeymen.  I have a lot of nuanced views, and understand both sides pretty well.  But it is enormously difficult to self-analyze this stuff.  Reaching into one's unconscious is hard - where to even begin?  I'm sure I've got plenty of tribal bias.  And how much is any of it affecting my cognition at any given moment?

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