Science helps us understand the world and answer questions about how and why things are the way they are. But this doesn’t mean science always gives us the most accurate answers possible. Quite often science seems to suggest an answer, sometimes the answer we get doesn’t really answer the question we wanted to ask, and sometimes there is just too much noise to gain any real understanding. The inability to perfectly answer every question, especially when we present science as providing clear facts when teaching science to young children, is a point of the confusion and dismissal among those who don’t want to believe the answers that science gives us.
In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach writes, “Of course, science doesn’t dependably deliver truths. It is as fallible as the men and women who undertake it. Science has the answer to every question that can be asked. However, science reserves the right to change that answer should additional data become available.” The science of the afterlife (really the science of life, living, death, and dying), Roach explains, has been a science of revision. What we believe, how we conduct experiments, and how we interpret scientific results has shifted as our technology and scientific methods have progressed. The science of life and death has given us many different answers over the years as our own biases have shifted and as our data and computer processing has evolved.
The reality is that all of our scientific fields of study are incomplete. There are questions we still don’t have great answers to, and as we seek those answers, we have to reconsider older answers and beliefs. We have to study contradictions and try to understand what might be wrong with the way we have interpreted the world. What we bring to science impacts what we find, and that means that sometimes we don’t find truths, but conveniently packaged answers that reinforce what we always wanted to be true. Overtime, however, the people doing the science change, the background knowledge brought to science changes, and the way we understand the answers from science changes. It can be frustrating to those of us on the outside who want clear answers and don’t want to be abused by people who wish to deliberately mislead based on incomplete scientific knowledge. But overtime science revises itself to become more accurate and to better describe the world around us.
Recently I have been writing about Judea Pearl’s The Book of Why, in which Pearl asks if our reliance on statistics and our adherence to the idea correlation is not causation has gone too far in science. For most people, especially students getting into science and those who have studied politics, reiterating the idea that correlation does not imply causation is important. There are plenty of ways to misinterpret data and there is no shortage of individuals and interest groups who would love to have an official scientist improperly assign causation to a correlation for their own political and economic gain. However, Pearl uses the cigarette wars to show us that failing to acknowledge that correlations can imply causation can also be dangerous.
“The cigarette wars were science’s first confrontation with organized denialism, and no one was prepared,” writes Pearl. For decades there was ample evidence from different fields and different approaches linking cigarette smoking to cancer. However, it isn’t the case that every single person who smokes a cigarette gets cancer. We all know people who smoked for 30 years, and seem to have great lungs. Sadly, we also all know people who developed lung cancer but never smoked. The causation between cigarettes is not a perfect 1:1 correlation with lung cancer, and tobacco companies jumped on this fact.
For years, it was abundantly clear that smoking greatly increased the risk of lung cancer, but no one was willing to say that smoking caused lung cancer, because powerful interest groups aligned against the idea and conditioned policy-makers and the public to believe that in the case of smoking and lung cancer, correlation was not causation. The evidence was obvious, but built on statistical information and the organized denial was stronger. Who was to say if people more susceptible to lung cancer were also more susceptible to start smoking in the first place? Arguments such as these hindered people’s willingness to adopt the clear causal picture that cigarettes caused cancer. People hid behind a possibility that the overwhelming evidence was wrong.
Today we are in a similar situation with climate change and other issues. It is clear that statistics cannot give us a 100% certain answer to a causal question, and it is true that correlation is not necessarily a sign of causation, but at a certain point we have to accept when the evidence is overwhelming. We have to accept when causal models that are not 100% proven have overwhelming support. We have to be able to make decisions without being derailed by organized denialism that seizes on the fact that correlation does not imply causation, just to create doubt and confusion. Pearl’s warning is that failing to be better with how we think about and understand causality can have real consequences (lung cancer in the cigarette wars, and devastating climate impacts today), and that we should take those consequences seriously when we look at the statistics and data that helps us understand our world.
is a major problem for those of us who want to have beliefs that accurately reflect the world. To live is to have preferences about how the world operates and relates to our lives. We would prefer not to endure suffering and pain, and would rather have comfort, companionship, and prosperity. We would prefer the world to provide for us, and we would prefer to not be too heavily strained. From pure physical needs and preferences all the way through social and emotional needs and preferences, our experiences of the world are shaped by what we want and what we would like. This is why we cannot get away from our own opinions and individual preferences in life, and part of why motivated reasoning becomes the problem that it is.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about how motivated reasoning works in our minds, in terms of the arguments we make to support the conclusions we believe in, or would like to believe in. He writes, “When people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound.”
We justify conclusions we would like to believe with any argument that seems plausible and fits the conclusion we would like to believe. Our preference for one conclusion leads us to bend the arguments in favor of that conclusion. Rather than truly analyzing the arguments, we discount factors that don’t support what we want to believe, and we disregard arguments that come from people who are reaching an alternative conclusion. Our preferences take over, and the things we want become more important than reality. Motivated reasoning gives us a way to support what we want to believe by twisting the value we assign to different facts.
Even in our own mind, demonstrating that an argument in favor of our preferred conclusion is flawed is unlikely to make much of a difference. We will continue to hold on to our flawed argument, choosing to believe that there is something true about it, even if we know it is flawed or contradicts other disagreeable facts that must also be true if we are to support our preferred conclusion.
This doesn’t make us humans look very good. We can’t reason our way to new beliefs and we can’t rely on facts and data to change minds. In the end, if we want to change our thoughts and behavior as well as those of others, we have to shape people’s preferences. Motivated reasoning can support conclusions that do not accurately reflect the world around us, so for those of us who care about reality, we have to heighten the salience of believing and trusting science and expertise before we can get people to adopt our arguments in favor of rational evidence. If we don’t think about how preference and motivated reasoning lead people to believe inaccurate claims, we will fail to address the preferences that support problematic policies, and we won’t be able to guide our world in a direction based on reason and sound conclusions.
The last few days I have been writing about communication and asking what our communication is really all about if it is not just about facts and conveying information. When just talking to someone or communicating anything we seem to be including a lot of information that we are not even aware of. One of the things we are showing off in conversation is that we are someone who should be kept around, because we have useful insights and thoughts into the world around us.
In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at this point directly. They write, “Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally.”
In his episode of the Conversations with Tyler Podcast
, Hanson describes it as showing off your backpack of skills and abilities. We want to show off that we know interesting facts so that people keep us around to hear more interesting facts in the future. We want to show how well connected we are with other allies so that people want to stick by us to get potential benefits from those insider connections. We also want to demonstrate that we are able to find out useful knowledge that might help someone else in the future. We might have just shared a simple or interesting fact about our experiences or something we learned, but it can demonstrate a lot more about us than we recognize.
Over time, we likely won’t remember where we heard information first. We likely won’t remember exactly who told us what, but we will remember who we have had good conversations with in the past, and people will remember that we had a lot of helpful things to say about a given topic. What we say in this moment doesn’t matter, as long as we develop a pattern of being helpful and insightful.
All of this is happening in our conversations without us realizing how much it is taking place. Conversation is natural, and we don’t want to seem like we are only engaging in conversation to get something useful from someone else, otherwise we won’t truly build any allies and friendships. The brain works better for us when it is not aware of its own motivations in this instance.