Recently a friend, in the midst of a turbulent debate with me over the causes of global warming, reached his limits. Neither side appeared to have a solid foundation for their case, in the eyes of the other. Evidence offered as conclusive proof by one of us was blown off by the other as marginally relevant, or grossly misread. In fact, both of us often used the same piece of “evidence” to arrive at diametrically opposed conclusions. As I argued against his position he looked at me and said, “Look, we’re not getting anywhere. People believe what they want to believe.”
It stopped me in my tracks, and initially had me despising the cynicism on display. But the more I think about “belief,” and getting beyond it, the more I view his comment as a truly profound statement. It will take a few more (dozens?) posts to fully explain why, but let’s start with the assumption he’s right. If people believe what they want, what do people want to believe?
We humans have an incredible bias towards interpreting new experience in light of past experience. So we tend to want to believe we’re right already, and we look for confirmation of existing beliefs in every new piece of data. At best, this is referred to as “confirmation bias” and scientists go out of their way to eliminate its influence on their experiments. At worst this tendency manifests itself in conspiracy theorists who see EVERYTHING as proof of their position.
We have a tendency to WANT to believe things that allow us to continue holding beliefs we already have adopted and, in some cases, even ingrained into our very identity by holding them so long. People WANT to believe in a consistent identity, and tend to not believe things that might force them to reconsider something that they feel is a part of them.
This brings up a nasty conflict… for the next post.