On admitting you're wrong

Sunday, 20th March 2016

Intellectual Dishonesty and Cognitive Dissonance

Is it better to be wrong for the right reasons or coincidentally right for the wrong reasons? For sake of argument, let us imagine a school teacher asks you to write an essay on the origin of the human species and let us also assume the teacher has a strong bias in favour of scientific orthodoxy on this subject. Most students promptly recycle variants of the current conventional wisdom that we evolved from hominid apes through a process of natural selection. However, one student writes a long detailed critique of Darwinism and advocates intelligent design instead citing numerous published sources and much original research. Who deserves most credit for critical analysis? Those who simply summarise textbooks and online encyclopaedias or the lone guy who goes to great lengths to explain why his teacher might be wrong? Now I happen to think creationism is just speculative mumbo jumbo akin to geocentrism (the belief that the earth is centre of the universe) and has been amply discredited by hundreds of years of scientific research. I do not intend to debate evolutionary theories here, but rather the thought processes that may lead us to one conclusion or another. While our hypothetical creationist student may be wrong, I would give him higher marks than another student who simply summarised conventional thinking. The real question is how these students would apply their analytical skills to another issue where powerful forces seek to suppress inconvenient evidence. It’s always easier just to go with the flow. On issue after issue, conformists will just attempt to win favour not just with peers but with opinion leaders and power brokers.

In the past I’ve made a number of analytical misjudgments. I guess some would say this goes with the territory if you’re a critical thinker like me prone to speak your mind on contentious issues. However, my biggest mistake was to attempt to rationalise inconsistencies in my analysis when clear evidence contradicted my thesis. I did so with the best of intentions and mainly because I wanted to retain a romantic fairy-tale view of human nature. We may call this phenomenon intellectual dishonesty, where one subconsciously seeks alternative evidence to explain apparent paradoxes of which one is nonetheless aware. When a belief becomes an act of faith with deep emotional undertones, some opinion leaders can build a minor literary career by attempting to refute all countervailing evidence, thereby reassuring their loyal followers and appeasing any stakeholders who may have vested interests in maintaining the validity of a given thesis. For instance I once believed men and women only differed anatomically and my daily experiences of differing intellectual and emotional profiles were entirely due to cultural pressures. I attempted to refute the evidence I witnessed firsthand as my children were growing up, but try as I might my daughter showed little interest in building complex Lego models and wanted a family of dolls instead. Sure, social forces exert enormous pressure on young minds, but they do not explain everything. Consider the thesis that McDonalds meals are bad for your health. The public relations and corporate communications industries have made a small fortune by producing evidence to the contrary. Typically they will address perceived myths and shift the blame for rising obesity and diabetes levels to other culprits, such as sedentary lifestyles, microwave dinners or rival fast food joints.

Experience should teach us not just the limits of human knowledge, but the clear distinction between primary and secondary sources of knowledge. If you witness a murder, you may not fully understand its background or motives, but at least you can corroborate a fact, a primary source. Anything else you learn about the preceding events that you did not personally witness would be secondary sources of evidence. I cannot be 100% certain that Tripoli is a dangerous city for I have never been there. Before I could verify this thesis in person, that Tripoli has a high violent crime rate, I would have to rely on reports from other trusted sources. I once failed to heed warnings in what seemed a quiet leafy suburb of Johannesburg and was mugged at knife point, so I probably wouldn’t take any chances in Tripoli without an armed escort. However, would I trust my government or mainstream news agencies to report accurately on the destabilisation of Libya? If we believed them in 2011, Libya should now be peace-loving democracy.

The intellectual dishonesty of mere observers or casual polemicists need not concern us at all. People are entitled to their views, however illogical. But I’d rather have a friendly and conscientious creationist as a neighbour than a selfish and deceitful Darwinian fundamentalist. However, we should worry when politicians and opinion leaders deliberately deceive the public by suppressing facts and demonising dissent,

Cognitive Dissonance

Some people are blissfully unaware of their intellectual dishonesty and apply very different criteria to different issues without the slightest concern that competing demands may conflict. A simple example may be a new age hippie who refuses to eat genetically modified food, but seems happy to buy and consume adulterated MDMA, GHB, ketamine and methamphetamine at regular raves. Whatever the dangers of GM food may be, street drugs are not only much more likely to harm your health, but are also sold by greedy captalists reliant on captive consumers.

Now let us consider an animal rights campaigner who also thinks mass migration to wealthy countries is a wonderful idea. You know the kind of people who keep reminding us how we can just build more houses and how more people will also boost the economy. One of my twitter followers keeps posting delightful images of innocent animals subjected to human cruelty interpersed with tweets urging us to accommodate more refugees. These are both highly emotive issues. Wouldn't it be nice if polar bears, wild cats, seals, dolphins, tuna fish and North African refugees could all live happily ever after in peace and harmony. Last year UK residents ate approximately one billion animals and a growing population has a growing appetite for imported food. Human activity, especially in crowded affluent regions, tends to restrict the natural habitat of other animals. Sure we can set aside some land as wildlife parks or nature reserves, but by and large more roads, houses, sewage treatment plants, hospitals, office blocks, factories, warehouses and farmland reduces the land available to the rest of the natural world. Dolphins don’t meet early deaths because Nigerians are not granted UK residency, but because our oceans are polluted by human over-activity. North Africans do not seek to migrate to Northern Europe to save wildlife, but gain a higher material standard of living, which will inevitably lead to greater environmental destruction. It would be really nice to save all wildlife and allow the whole population of India and Africa to enjoy the North American way of life. However, in the real world we have to set priorities and realise our darling mother nature relies on delicate balances. Polar bears may look cute standing on floating ice fragments, but they are cunning predators and top of the food chain in their natural habitat. If we handed all land exploited by humans back to other species, we might soon witness the end of civilisation as we know it. Conversely, if all 7.5 billion human beings alive today consumed as much as your typical Australian, we could face a similar fate either through unspeakable environmental catastrophes or rapid resource depletion. We cannot return European cities back to nature without impacting the lives of millions of ordinary people any more than we can let urban sprawl destroy limited arable land requiring us to import more food and raw materials at great environmental expense from the rest of the world. By failing to acknowledge that the interests of economic migrants may differ from those of wild animals, some wishful thinking leftists engage in a wilful act of cognitive dissonance. Of course, some might tell you capitalism is at fault and indeed it is responsible for much of frenetic growth in human activity over the last 250 years. But why are so many North Africans moving to richer countries to follow wealth generated by evil corporations rather than staying at home and setting up eco-friendly organic farms?