Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Yes, yes, but the social sciences have been here before ...

Chris Mooney's latest piece in Mother Jones titled, nicely, "The Science of Why We Don't Believe in Science" is pretty good and refers to some interesting studies that I hadn't heard of.  The article's main point is: modern neuroscience and psychology have shown that our emotions color our capacity to reason, even when we are looking at scientific evidence. 

But may I just point out that the sociology reached this conclusion a century ago?  You don't really need neuroscience or fancy brain mechanisms to understand this; looking closely at social practices will get us there faster.  I don't really have any bone to pick with the article -- if neuroscience is what the public needs to understand that there is no such thing as pure unadulterated rationality, then I'll take that any day.

But there are still a couple of points that I'd like to make -- because they are implicit in Mooney's article and in the arguments of some of my friends as well.

It's nice that psychologists and neuroscientists think that values color the way we think of facts.  The problem is that even after knowing this, we still like to think of "facts" and "values" as useful terms.  Even more problematic is that we continue to think that people change their minds because of arguments.  This, to me, is almost entirely wrong, and still is the guiding assumption of Mooney's piece.  No one ever became an atheist because someone presented him with an irrefutable proof of God's non-existence (which is why I find the New Atheists a bit boring).  The secularization of Europe did not happen because Voltaire's diatribes against God -- it happened because a Church-State separation was put into place following all the bloody wars of religion that people were so tired of.  This separation, the rise of industrial capitalism and the separation of spheres that forms such a big part of the classical liberal political system -- all of these were instrumental in the rise of secularism (and Voltaire must be understood as a part of this current, rather than someone who made arguments that presented certain "facts" to the reader.)

When I say this to my friends, the answer always is: "But that's not true.  We did change our minds because of someone's arguments."  Or "that's not true.  I know plenty of people who became atheists after reading Dawkins."  Now there's no way I can offer a mathematical proof of what I am saying.  My point is simply: that this so-called argument that changed someone's mind was simply, to use a tennis metaphor, the last point of a match. Of course, the winner wins the last point -- but it's even more crucial to know the events that led  up to the last point.  If we want to know why someone changes his mind about something important, we need to look at the wider narrative of practices and that person's history, rather than just at some fact that convinced him (even if he himself attributes his change of beliefs to the presentation of certain facts).

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