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Right-Wing Authoritarians vs The Truth

2010/08/22

I’d always assumed and fully expected that we could convince people of the truth (of 9/11 or anything else) by showing them the evidence, and leading them through the logic of what we can deduce from the evidence, helping them to think like scientists.   The basics of the science are not that difficult.  But I’m frequently very frustrated by complete lack of success, dramatic failure even, and the harder I try, the more frustrated I get with very little, if any, satisfaction.

Well, perhaps I am doing it all wrong, at least regarding 9/11 truth, which is a highly emotionally charged issue, and it is understandably very difficult for most people to even imagine the mere possibility of our own government being an active participant in that atrocity.  The millions of people who have died in wars since then, justified by the lies of 9/11, are too heavy of a burden on our conscience.

But it appears the problem of irrationality is much more intractable for some of us.   There is a segment of our population who reacts to reason with the opposite of reason, with flat out denial of facts, twisting them to their purpose, to defend what they believe at all costs.  It is not everyone who does this to the extreme, but everyone has a tendency nevertheless, to hold on to what we believe regardless of the facts.  It takes courage to face the fact that you may not have all the facts, or that facts actually contradict what you would prefer to believe.

Social scientists have been studying this phenomenon (see The Authoritarians, by Robert Altemeyer), and have identified a group of people who tend to embody an authoritarian way of dealing with other people, and “truth” seems to be entirely relative to who you can get to do your bidding – that is the only reality.

Here is a video about authoritarianism and denial, not denial of 9/11 truth but more about a general lack of conscience, lack of morals, and lack of rationality.  This is John Dean reporting on research about  “Right-wing Authoritarian Followers”.  .

I learned about this video from the Climate Crocks posting, The Mind of the Denier, part of a series of videos which challenge another group of deniers, the global warming deniers, to wake up to the lies they have bought into, in large part promulgated indirectly by the fossil fuel industry itself, the very bane of our industrial civilization.

So it appears that conservatives, as a group, are less able to part with misinformation. This phenomenon is described in a very lucid presentation by “profMTH”, a debunker of bible-thumping beliefs, focused around the example of viewer responses to the McCain-Obama debates:

This video describes the backfire effect – in which presenting facts opposing the views of some individuals actually ends up reinforcing those views rather than weakening them.   The video also references an older article in The Washington Post, “The Power of Political Misinformation”  Some relevant quotes:

“… some refutations can strengthen misinformation, especially among conservatives.”

“…conservatives might ‘argue back’ against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation.”

A more recent article on “How facts backfire” was reported in the Boston Globe.

I have to point out, however, that what counts as a fact in peoples’ minds is exactly the issue here.   If evidence is provided by someone who you don’t trust, how are you to know whether to trust the evidence?  When people fall back on their beliefs, which have always supported them in the past, that is how they determine what is true.  They know no other truth.

But there is a way to determine what is true regardless of who is presenting an argument, or prior beliefs.  We, humanity, have come to understand how science can very conscientiously and methodically separate fact from fiction, or more typically, qualify the degree of certainty or uncertainty about any fact or theory.  There is never really any absolute certainty in this process, but when we have enough consistency between measurements and predictions, then we feel very confident that we know something about what is real, what is true, as far as it goes.  Theories may be revised later, but usually they are merely refined, and revolutionary, new ways of looking at the world are rare.

So what’s wrong with this scientific way of thinking that all people can’t do it?

Here are a couple more videos that describe this phenomenon in more detail. They trace the roots of the authoritarian mindset back to the Authoritarian Family Structure which is hierarchical, with the father dominating over the mother, both dominating over their children.   This attitude is extended, following the dogmatic religious beliefs of many, to superimpose a Christ-like figure above man, and god above all.  It is about obeying, where might makes right, not thinking for yourself and taking responsibility for your actions.

In the next video, Richard Gelles talks about how parents define the world for their children, discussed in the context of corporal punishment.  And Michael Milburn talks about advocates of punitive public policies, which blame individuals for economic problems, and how this can often be traced back to childhood experiences of physical punishment.

So what is to be done about this situation?  How can we effectively counter this non-rational bias of a significant segment of society, one that tends to rise up in the hierarchy wherever it can and dominate over others because that is their calling.  Is it the case that enough of these people have found their way into the most powerful positions of the most authoritarian-dominated institutions, our military and intelligence organizations?  Are these the same people who found it easy enough to facilitate the true events of 9/11?

I started out talking about the problem of convincing anyone, liberal or conservative, and so far I have focused on the problem of convincing conservatives.  But this mindset of falling back on what we believe does apply to everyone, more or less.  The more extreme the required change of perspective is, the more likely we give up and take refuge in what we believe.  We are all conservative when it comes to our own basic survival, including the survival of our world view.

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