Some people seem immune to facts. Not just feeble minded people, either. Some are highly intelligent and well educated, which makes their inability to accept new information dangerous to other people who look up to them.
What demon has such a grip on these people’s minds? Why can’t they integrate new information into their minds and discard old idea that no longer fit?
Well, as one of them I know is fond of saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Nobody wants to fall for anything, and the quote contains enough truth to be persuasive. The problem is when they take it too far. It’s important to stand for your beliefs, and indeed I stand for mine in this blog and other places. The problem is that even our most strongly held beliefs can be wrong; and when new information comes along, it’s time to correct them. A wise man once described faith as “believing what you know ain’t true.” Don’t keep on standing for a wrong idea after you learn it isn’t true.
Skeptical Science offers a few more ways people become so emotionally invested they can no longer accept new information that contradicts their existing opinions. (The Skeptical Science article concerns a specific husband and wife and their online discussion, but the excerpts remain just as true.)
There is also a very heavy emotional investment at play here at many different levels …
- In themselves: Once you take a stance in public, it is quite challenging for individuals to then change their mind – humans have this psychological need to stick with the original stance no matter what comes along. This is because we demand consistency with ourselves even when it makes no sense to do so. We also appear to become emotionally attached to specific answers (perhaps akin to the way we also become emotionally attached to specific items) and so we can find it hard to let go. Once we promote an idea, it ceases to be an idea and becomes our idea. We become, in short, highly resistant to changing our minds because our answer has become part of who we are, and so any threat to it feels like a threat to us
- In each other: (The husband and wife) are also very much entangled here emotionally – they are husband and wife, so each is driven by an emotional bond to support the other no matter what. To back down and acknowledge “actually yes, that idea being promoted by my partner is nonsense” is simply unthinkable and not a viable step for either of them to take … ever.
- In the belief: They also both have a very heavy emotional investment in the belief itself, everything they do is in many ways built upon this emotional foundation, so much so, that even starting to consider that possibility that the belief might not be true is not a viable option.
So they will remain immune to factual rebuttals . . .
Even that’s not all.
Many people spend their whole lives promoting nonsense. Like religion, for instance. When a pastor of a church is presented with new (to him or her) information that should overturn their beliefs, it simply doesn’t “take,” in most cases. When it does take, it may be a decade or longer before the pastor can actually stand up and say, “I was wrong.” Not only is it extremely difficult to say, “I have been wrong all this time,” but in many cases, the pastor’s income also depends on continuing to preach the nonsense. If one has a family to support, and has little training for the job market, this places terrible pressure on the pastor to keep on preaching — and believing — what he or she has preached all along.
There is, in fact, a forum composed of more than 400 anonymous pastors of churches who no longer believe what they preach, but who cannot yet admit it to their church. They work together to find solutions to the problem and help each other to “come out” safely. I sympathize with them. I was not a pastor, but it still took me a full decade and more to overcome the beliefs that had been literally drilled into me from birth. (Did you ever hear of an Independent Baptist “sword drill”?)
A rebuttal of a silly assertion is on one level pointless because they cannot change their minds, it is in effect a symptom of the real problem – the issue is not that they face the wrong facts, but rather comes down to how they work out what is and is not factual. Tackle that issue and then the rest will naturally sort itself out.
I would add that it is at times still appropriate to respond with a rebuttal for silly claims, not because it will change the mind of the claimant, but rather because there are often many fence sitters who do appreciate good reliable factual information – they have not made a public stance and so are open to the idea of changing their mind. Perhaps they have been brought up with only one side of a conversation, and so hearing the other side often does open eyes and change minds.
Stand up for what you believe, but try hard to be sure your beliefs incorporate the latest facts. You don’t want to spend your whole life standing up for nonsense.