A Philosopher's Blog

Science & Self-Identity

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2014
English: The smallpox vaccine diluent in a syr...

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The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to impose on another’s belief, who has already imposed on his own? Who can reasonably expect arguments and conviction from him in dealing with others, whose understanding is not accustomed to them in his dealing with himself? Who does violence to his own faculties, tyrannizes over his own mind, and usurps the prerogative that belongs to truth alone, which is to command assent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it.

-John Locke

As a philosophy professor who focuses on the practical value of philosophical thinking, one of my main objectives is to train students to be effective critical thinkers. While true critical thinking has been, ironically, threatened by the fact that it has become something of a fad, I stick with a very straightforward and practical view of the subject. As I see it, critical thinking is the rational process of determining whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected or false or subject to the suspension of judgment. Roughly put, a critical thinker operates on the principle that the belief in a claim should be proportional to the evidence for it, rather than in proportion to our interests or feelings. In this I follow John Locke’s view: “Whatsoever credit or authority we give to any proposition more than it receives from the principles and proofs it supports itself upon, is owing to our inclinations that way, and is so far a derogation from the love of truth as such: which, as it can receive no evidence from our passions or interests, so it should receive no tincture from them.” Unfortunately, people often fail to follow this principle and do so in matters of considerable importance, such as climate change and vaccinations. To be specific, people reject proofs and evidence in favor of interests and passions.

Despite the fact that the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, there are still people who deny climate change. These people are typically conservatives—although there is nothing about conservatism itself that requires denying climate change.

While rejecting the scientific evidence for climate change can be regarded as irrational, it is easy enough to attribute a rational motive behind this view. After all, there are people who have an economic interest in denying climate change or, at least, preventing action from being taken that they regard as contrary to their interests (such as implementing the cap and trade system on carbon originally proposed by conservative thinkers). This interest would provide a motive to lie (that is, make claims that one knows are not true) as well as a psychological impetus to sincerely hold to a false belief. As such, I can easily make sense of climate change denial in the face of overwhelming evidence: big money is on the line. However, the denial less rational for the majority of climate change deniers—after all, they are not owners of companies in the fossil fuel business. However, they could still be motivated by a financial stake—after all, addressing climate change could cost them more in terms of their energy bills. Of course, not addressing climate change could cost them much more.

In any case, I get climate denial in that I have a sensible narrative as to why people reject the science on the basis of interest. However, I have been rather more confused by people who deny the science regarding vaccines.

While vaccines are not entirely risk free, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that they are safe and very effective. Scientists have a good understanding of how they work and there is extensive empirical evidence of their positive impact—specifically the massive reduction in cases of diseases such as polio and measles. Oddly enough, there is significant number of Americans who willfully deny the science of vaccination. What is most unusual is that these people tend to be college educated. They are also predominantly political liberals, thus showing that science denial is bi-partisan. It is fascinating, but also horrifying, to see someone walk through the process of denial—as shown in a segment on the Daily Show. This process is rather complete: evidence is rejected, experts are dismissed and so on—it is as if the person’s mind switched into a Bizzaro version of critical thinking (“kritikal tincing” perhaps). This is in marked contrast with the process of rational disagreement in which the methodology of critical thinking is used in defense of an opposing viewpoint. Being a philosopher, I value rational disagreement and I am careful to give opposing views their due. However, the use of fallacious methods and outright rejection of rational methods of reasoning is not acceptable.

As noted above, climate change denial makes a degree of sense—behind the denial is a clear economic interest. However, vaccine science denial seems to lack that motive. While I could be wrong about this, there does not seem to be any economic interest that would benefit from this denial—except, perhaps, the doctors and hospitals that will be treating the outbreaks of preventable diseases. However, doctors and hospitals obviously encourage vaccination. As such, an alternative explanation is needed.

Recent research does provide some insight into the matter and this research is consistent with Locke’s view that people are influenced by both interests and passions. In this case, the motivating passion seems to be a person’s commitment to her concept of self. The idea is that when a person’s self-concept or self-identity is threatened by facts, the person will reject the facts in favor of her self-identity.  In the case of the vaccine science deniers, the belief that vaccines are harmful has somehow become part of their self-identity. Or so goes the theory as to why these deniers reject the evidence.

To be effective, this rejection must be more than simply asserting the facts are wrong. After all, the person is aiming to deceive herself to maintain her self-identity. As such, the person must create an entire narrative which makes their rejection seem sensible and believable to them. A denier must, as Pascal said in regards to his famous wager, make himself believe his denial. In the case of matters of science, a person needs to reject not just the claims made by scientists but also the method by which the scientists support the claims. Roughly put, the narrative of denial must be a complete story that protects itself from criticism. This is, obviously enough, different from a person who denies a claim on the basis of evidence—since there is rational support for the denial, there is no need to create a justifying narrative.

This, I would say, is one of the major dangers of this sort of denial—not the denial of established facts, but the explicit rejection of the methodology that is used to assess facts. While people often excel at compartmentalization, this strategy runs the risk of corrupting the person’s thinking across the board.

As noted above, as a philosopher one of my main tasks is to train people to think critically and rationally. While I would like to believe that everyone can be taught to be an effective and rational thinker, I know that people are far more swayed by rhetoric and (ironically) fallacious reasoning then they are swayed by good logic. As such, there might be little hope that people can be “cured” of their rejection of science and reasoning. Aristotle took this view—while noting that some can be convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” most people cannot. He advocated the use of coercive habituation to get people to behave properly and this could (and has) been employed to correct incorrect beliefs. However, such a method is agnostic in regards to the truth—people can be coerced into accepting the false as well as the true.

Interestingly enough, a study by Brendan Nyhan shows that reason and persuasion both fail when employed in attempts to change false beliefs that are critical to a person’s self-identity. In the case of Nyhan’s study, there were various attempts to change the beliefs of vaccine science deniers using reason (facts and science) and also various methods of rhetoric/persuasions (appeals to emotions and anecdotes). Since reason and persuasion are the two main ways to convince people, this is certainly a problem.

The study and other research did indicate an avenue that might work. Assuming that it is the threat to a person’s self-concept that triggers the rejection mechanism, the solution is to approach a person in a way that does not trigger this response. To use an analogy, it is like trying to conduct a transplant without triggering the body’s immune system to reject the transplanted organ.

One obvious problem is that once a person has taken a false belief as part of his self-concept, it is rather difficult to get him to regard any attempt to change his mind as anything other than a threat. Addressing this might require changing the person’s self-concept or finding a specific strategy for addressing that belief that is somehow not seen as a threat. Once that is done, the second stage—that of actually addressing the false belief, can begin.


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17 Responses

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  1. apollonian said, on June 9, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Prof. Mike Un-Wittingly Most Describes Himself For Self-Identity And Noble Lies, Ho Ho Ho

    Mike: u’re the best example of the delusional person u describe at the end of ur essay, regarding “self-concept” preventing rational thought, u pretending to “ethics as end in itself” and the idea of “good.”

    Thus u begin w. ur inferiority complex, obviously, and then insist upon ur fixation for “good.”

    And u’re not a philosopher, Mike; rather, u’re an anti-philosopher, a mystic, who doesn’t really understand logic, fixated upon “good” as ur end-all and be-all, then everything else tacked-up around it, including name-dropping and ur philosophic-styled catch-phrases.

    And u work for ZOG, telling and pushing their lies, including esp. “climate-change” and now, we see, ur balderdash about vaccination.

    Thus u lie, saying evidence for “climate-change” is “over-whelming”–funny thing is u’re not capable of simply stating what that “evidence” is–ho ho ho hoho. The most I’ve seen u do is to use arg.-fm-authority fallacy, citing some study, always by liars who are paid by gov. and interests behind “climate-change” fraud.

    Regarding vaccination, the problem is the so-called “science” behind it is over-stated and over-blown for the “success” u allege. There may actually be some scientific merit behind vaccination, but the actual problem at present is vaccines pushed by the big corp.s are toxic, poisonous, infected, and tainted w. known contaminants.

    Further, it’s KNOWN these corp.s pushing the toxic vaccines–which have killed and infected thousands and thousands–are criminal conspirators in the AGENDA-21 movement to “reduce” population, this agenda being behind the deliberate toxicity of the vaccines and their contaminated ingredients.

    So I think u succeed brilliantly, actually, for the thesis and logic of ur essay; it’s just u overlook the greatest victim and example–YOURSELF–spouting what u genuinely consider “noble” lies in ur Platonist style. Ho ho ho ho ho ho

  2. apollonian said, on June 9, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    “Climate-change” lies: http://www.infowars.com/gore-peddles-lies-and-spin-to-defend-bankrupt-climate-change-agenda/

    All u gotta do is google “climate change lies” and u come up w. numerous excellent articles. Get a clue, Mikey

  3. T. J. Babson said, on June 9, 2014 at 10:57 pm


    Climate scientists make several claims, and some are more dubious than others, yet you want to label all of those who doubt some of these claims as “deniers.”

    Here are some examples:

    1) Claim: the earth has warmed over the past century or so. (Few doubt this claim).

    2) Claim: man has caused the climate to change by increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. (Far more doubt this claim and point to the lack of warming over the past 16 years.)

    3) Claim: if we do not take drastic action, the warming of the climate will have devastating consequences. (Lots of people doubt this claim as well.)

    4) Claim: we can actually reverse climate change by taking drastic action. (This claim is also widely doubted.)

    Let’s say one believes that the earth will warm only 1 degree over the next 100 years instead of 4 degrees. Is that person a ” denier”?

    • apollonian said, on June 10, 2014 at 10:40 am

      Try To Remember: It’s “Good” To Lie

      TJB: first of all, u offend against the overall political-correct standard that Mike is required to obey and heed if he wants to keep his job working for ZOG–how dare u put him in position of having to be analytical and sticking his neck out even on details?–u’re asking quite a lot, I hope u know.

      Second, note Mike is a Platonist who seriously believes in “good” and that it’s good to believe in such “good.” Hence he would consider telling a “noble” lie if there was some “good” to be done–“climate change” fraud is just such a subject.

      For Mike is persuaded that “climate-change” MIGHT be true–he can’t prove it’s not–including for details, hence he considers it expedient according to his criterion of “good” to stretch in direction of pretending the lies are true, hence then that it’s justified for him to transmitting these lies–it’s all for a “noble” purpose, u see, according to Platonist principles which upholds “good” over Christian TRUTH, for example.

      So try to be sensitive to Platonist lying would u pls?–it’s all for a “noble” purpose, u see.

      • apollonian said, on June 10, 2014 at 10:45 am

        And don’t forget Immanuel Kant who believed it was good to believe it was good to believe in good, ho ho ho ho ho. Goodness, u see is justification for anything and everything. It was okay for the Jew Bolsheviks to murder a few million Ukrainians–for the greater good of the working-class, don’t u see?

        • apollonian said, on June 10, 2014 at 11:38 am

          And note: all this obsession/fixation w. “good” comes fm a BASIC inferiority-complex, don’t doubt–how else can it be explained?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 11, 2014 at 10:44 am

      You are quite right. After opening a discussion about general denial, the next step should be to address the specific points and nuances of the issue. As you note, disputing the specific numbers based on legitimate grounds would be science rather than science denial.

      There is also the matter of policy-that is, what we should do. That should be informed by science, but is also a matter of politics, ethics and economics.

      • apollonian said, on June 11, 2014 at 11:59 am

        Mike Never Fails To Fail, Ho Ho Ho

        Ho ho ho–here our peerless leader, Prof. Mike, is given opportunity to pt. to specific facts, and utterly fails, as usual. Mike, the whole pt. is u HAVE NO FACTS, hence no evidence. “Overwhelming evidence” is LIE, but which lie u imagine is justified in ur perverted, Platonistic fashion.

        And yes, we know u’ll cite “studies” which is classic, blatant arg.-fm-authority fallacy and lies–u cannot pt. to ANY FACTS that stand by themselves, u NEVER have (and never will, ho ho ho).

        Gov.-funded, public edjumacation is just the pushing of Platonist-justified lies, perversion, and corruption, “climate-change” lies and vaccination poisoning perfect examples.

  4. Glen Wallace said, on June 10, 2014 at 5:51 am

    “Despite the fact that the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, there are still people who deny climate change.”

    Ironically, the term ‘overwhelming’ describes an emotional reaction to some state of affairs. I would agree that a great number of people fall victim to the confirmation bias after watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and become overwhelmed with emotion over what they are now convinced is incontrovertible fact. However, I fail to see how the term ‘overwhelm’ has any use in the mental ‘tool chest’ of a critical thinking person.

    Additionally, it doesn’t seem like the term ‘deny’ is appropriate in describing someone who believes a scientific theory is false. Denying something implies a refusal to believe a prima fascia evident fact. I would think that all the pitfalls and frustrations in the quest to achieve any degree of mathematical certainty in the philosophy of science as encountered by the likes of Popper, Khun and Lakatos would make clear that to there is nothing certain about the veracity of any scientific theory, no matter how strong the argument from authority makes it appear so.

    • apollonian said, on June 10, 2014 at 11:14 am

      Glenn: remember ALL philosophy and logic begins, necessarily, in assumption. Thus Aristotle taught that basic assumption should be OBJECTIVITY–that there’s reality outside our consciousness, this against Plato (also Descarte and Kant) and the Jew Talmud (whatever is good for Jews, hence top leadership).

      So given the necessary premise, u can have such “certainty.” Only alternative, Platonist-Talmudic subjectivism (mysticism) is obviously absurd.

  5. Glen Wallace said, on June 12, 2014 at 12:25 am

    “While true critical thinking has been, ironically, threatened by the fact that it has become something of a fad…”

    I would argue that critical thinking is not becoming popular because of some fad, but rather because of the increasingly interactive nature of the internet. Logic, reason and critical thinking are great equalizers for all those masses who now have the ability to provide their own input on a variety of subjects that others from around the planet can now view. We are no longer relegated to merely talking or yelling at some talking head on the TV or submitting an oped piece to the newspaper with the hope that just maybe some editor at the paper would consider it worthy of publication. Now, we all can publish our ideas and I think we are coming to the realization that critical thinking is a transcendental, universal concept that doesn’t care a whit about prestigious titles, degrees or positions of authority. Critical thinking is the ally to all of us otherwise quiet thinkers who have none of those prestigious titles, degrees or positions of authority, but we still have the gall to think we should also still be able to put our thoughts forward for consideration on whatever the topic may be.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 12, 2014 at 3:52 pm

      I hope you are right.

      What I have noticed in academics and outside is critical thinking as fad/gimmick. That is, people using it as a buzzword and presenting things that are not actually critical thinking under the label of CT to make the bad sound better.

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