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Agnotology and Santa Claus (updated slightly)

by John Quiggin on May 13, 2011

For students of agnotology there is no more striking finding than the observation that many people, presented with evidence that undermines a strongly held belief, react as if that belief had been confirmed[1]. This seems to undermine any possibility that evidence will ever settle political disputes. And yet, evidence does seem to seep through in the end. Although belief in Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction persisted long after the absence of evidence had turned into clear evidence of absence, it faded away in the end (not that it has completely disappeared even now).

As a slightly more optimistic take on the experimental evidence, I offer the example of Santa Claus. Young children, presented with the suggestion that Santa isn’t real, blithely ignore it. Slightly older children, though, react in exactly the manner of the experimental subjects, reaffirming their belief in the Santa story and (of course) the associated presents. Later, of course, they accept the truth.

In some social contexts children are likely draw the obvious analogy between Santa and God, while in other contexts, the distinction between the two beliefs is maintained successfully. But regardless of context, there is an obvious risk, for those who would like their children to grow up as theists, in insisting too hard on the reality of Santa.

Similarly, I suspect that the apparent success of Republicans in believing six impossible things before breakfast, and in taking up new delusions as old ones are abandoned, may mask an underlying erosion of faith. Birtherism may morph into torturism without any obvious sign of stress, but at some level people must gradually become aware that their political beliefs are more like the faith that belief in Santa will bring presents and less like the belief that kicking a rock will give you a stubbed toe.

fn1. The general phenonomen of confirmation bias (paying attention to evidence that supports your belief and disregarding contradictory evidence) is well established. The first finding of reinforcement Nyhan and Riefler find that Democrats ignore contradictory evidence, while Republicans respond in the way I described. I can’t find the study that supported this. Nyhan and Riefler cite earlier research by Redlawski that I haven’t been able to find.

Advanced agnotology

by Michael Bérubé on June 7, 2010

(Following on John’s installments, part one, part two, and part three.)

I’m not sure how I missed this—I think I was lost in the archives at the time.  But last month, right around the time everyone on CT was discussing agnotology, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, came out “cautiously” in favor of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s demand that the University of Virginia turn over (as the Washington Post put it) “all data and materials presented by former professor Michael Mann when he applied for five research grants from the university.” (That includes “all correspondence or e-mails between Mann and 39 other scientists since 1999” until Mann left Virginia for Penn State in 2005.) Wood writes, citing renowned scientist and powerful logic machine operator John Hinderaker:

John Hinderaker’s point is well taken. No one has the right to take public funds just to make stuff up and pass it along as science. And “academic freedom” could well suffer a greater crisis of legitimacy from that kind of abuse than from the interference of meddling politicians.

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Agnotology: followup

by John Quiggin on May 5, 2010

In my last post, I promised a separate discussion on the tu quoque response; that is, the claim that confirmation bias, closed-mindedness and deliberate promotion of ignorance are universal phenomena, just as bad on the left as on the right.

More over the fold on this, but here are some links that have come up since I posted

Slacktivist gives some striking info on the “P&G in league with the devil” rumors. Key points.

*The rumors were apparently started by distributors for Amway, but went viral (compare AGW delusions and Exxon).

  • (Many of) those propagating the rumors, even excluding those with a monetary axe to grind, were not innocent dupes, but were well aware that they were peddling lies.

David Frum reduces Jonah Goldberg to a stammering wreck on the question “Is Obama really a Marxist/Socialist”.

A second example of a rightwing critique of agnotology. Note: In the original version of this post, I incorrectly linked to an example of agnotology instead of a refutation, then corrected it (as I thought) but failed. I think it’s right this time. Even inadvertent error can be hard to correct! -JQ

Scott McLemee reviews the book of the concept.

A striking example of the asymmetry of agnotology. The right has made big play of alleged weaknesses in the “hockey stick” paper of Mann et al. But the critique they primarily rely on, by Wegman et al, is a pile of plagiarised nonsense.

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The Oregon Petition: A case study in agnotology

by John Quiggin on May 3, 2010

One problem with the recent discussion of epistemic closure or, in my preferred terminology, agnotology, ( that is, the manufacture and maintenance of ignorance) on the US[1] political right is that a lot of it has been discussed in fairly abstract terms. However, there is a fair bit of agreement that climate change is both a key example, and that the rightwing construction of a counternarrative to mainstream science on this issue marks both an important example, and a major step in the journey towards a completely closed parallel universe of discourse.

Climate change as a whole is too big and complicated to be useful in understanding what is going on, so it is useful to focus on one particular example, which does not require any special knowledge of climate science or statistics. The Oregon Petition, commonly quoted as showing that “31000 scientists reject global warming” not only fits the bill perfectly but was raised by Jim Manzi in his critique of Mark Levin.

So, it provides a useful test case for understanding the agnotology of the right.

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Shibboleths (repost from 2011)

by John Quiggin on June 14, 2018

Reading the latest post from John H, I was reminded of this one from 2011, about when the baton was being passed from Palin to Trump. A few thoughts on this

  • Agreeing with Corey’s take, there’s very little in Trump’s consistent denial of reality that wasn’t evident back in 2011. Trump’s change has been to make obvious what could previously be ignored
  • The eagerness with which virtually all Republicans (including Republican-voting “independents”) have embraced Trump refutes my suggestion that they will ultimately be turned off by this stuff
  • It’s striking that around the same time, Jonathan Haidt was getting lots of praise for The Righteous Mind. By taking conservatives’ self-descriptions as accurate, and ignoring evidence like the prevalence of birtherism, Haidt concluded that liberals had a caricatured view of conservatives, and their values of “Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity”. Now, it’s obvious that, for practical purposes, the caricature is the reality.

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Running v walking

by John Quiggin on April 24, 2013

With the exception of an unnameable region bordering on the Eastern Mediterranean, posts on diet and exercise seem to promote more bitter disputes than any others. So, in the spirit of adventure, I’m going to step away from my usual program of soft and fluffy topics like the bubbliness of bitcoins, the uselessness of navies and the agnotology of climate denial, and tackle the thorny question of running vs walking.

Happily, and unlike, say climate science, this is a question on which you can find a reputable scientific study to support just about any position you care to name, and even some that appear to support both sides, so I’m just going to pick the ones I like, draw the conclusions I want, and invite you all to have it out in the comments thread. I’m also going to attempt the classic move of representing the opposing positions as extremes, relative to which I occupy the sensible centre.

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by John Quiggin on February 17, 2011

A recent report on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers”, with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.

Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.

But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.

Rather, birtherism is a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe. (The original shibboleth was a password chosen by the Gileadites because their Ephraimite enemies could not say “Sh”.) Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth.

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Ignorance is strength

by John Quiggin on May 8, 2010

The discussions here and elsewhere on agnotology/epistemic closure have established the existence of a set of mechanisms on the right[1] for propagating ignorance and protecting it against factual refutation. These mechanisms have some obvious benefits, particularly in mobilising resistance against policy innovations, and tribal solidarity against outsiders of all kinds. This is evident, for example, in the attacks on Obama’s health reforms, in the support that can be mobilised for anti-immigrant policies and in the promotion of anti-science views on climate change. Politically, it’s impressive that a party that made such a complete mess of every aspect of policy under Bush can be favored to make big gains at the next elections. At least in the short term, ignorance is strength.

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After the dead horses

by John Quiggin on April 25, 2010

We’ve had a fair bit of fun here lately, pointing out the silliness of those who are supposed to be the intellectual leaders of the right, in its libertarian, neoconservative and Republican tribalist versions. But, as quite a few commenters have pointed out (one using the same, maybe Oz-specific, phrase that occurred to me) the exercise does seem to savor a bit of flogging dead horses.

It seems to me necessary to go beyond this, which was one reason for my post on hope the other day. To make progress, we need to reassess where we stand and then think about where to go next. This is bound to be something of a confused and confusing process. Over the fold, I’ve made some (quite a few) observations, making for a very long post, which is mainly meant to open things up for discussion.

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