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Dave's Exegesis is my eclectic site of exegesis on pretty much everything I can think of, whether biblical studies, theology, music, movies, culture, food, drink, sports, or the internet.

We Can’t Handle the Truth

10.21.10

The article below is not stating anything new.  Anyone who has taken psychology in high school or college knows the classic defence mechanisms of denial and self-justification.  Well, I’ve always thought that the rational notion that education or knowledge will cause us to agree and live in harmony is naive.  It doesn’t take into account the reasons for why we disagree or don’t understand things.  In either case, the study reported below is a reminder that we how we present truth is significant to people.  I think this is because of the connection of truth and beauty.  If we can’t see the beauty of truth, we won’t believe it.

Motivation strikes again…

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/

How facts backfire

Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains
By Joe Keohane | July 11, 2010

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

“Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be,” read a recent Onion headline. Like the best satire, this nasty little gem elicits a laugh, which is then promptly muffled by the queasy feeling of recognition. The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

Studies by other researchers have observed similar phenomena when addressing education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and other issues that tend to attract strong partisan opinion. Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”

What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as “motivated reasoning.” Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.

New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or “facts” — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge. In 2005, amid the strident calls for better media fact-checking in the wake of the Iraq war, Michigan’s Nyhan and a colleague devised an experiment in which participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). Nyhan inserted a clear, direct correction after each piece of misinformation, and then measured the study participants to see if the correction took.

For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

It’s unclear what is driving the behavior — it could range from simple defensiveness, to people working harder to defend their initial beliefs — but as Nyhan dryly put it, “It’s hard to be optimistic about the effectiveness of fact-checking.”

It would be reassuring to think that political scientists and psychologists have come up with a way to counter this problem, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The persistence of political misperceptions remains a young field of inquiry. “It’s very much up in the air,” says Nyhan.

But researchers are working on it. One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

There are also some cases where directness works. Kuklinski’s welfare study suggested that people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. He asked one group of participants what percentage of its budget they believed the federal government spent on welfare, and what percentage they believed the government should spend. Another group was given the same questions, but the second group was immediately told the correct percentage the government spends on welfare (1 percent). They were then asked, with that in mind, what the government should spend. Regardless of how wrong they had been before receiving the information, the second group indeed adjusted their answer to reflect the correct fact.

Kuklinski’s study, however, involved people getting information directly from researchers in a highly interactive way. When Nyhan attempted to deliver the correction in a more real-world fashion, via a news article, it backfired. Even if people do accept the new information, it might not stick over the long term, or it may just have no effect on their opinions. In 2007 John Sides of George Washington University and Jack Citrin of the University of California at Berkeley studied whether providing misled people with correct information about the proportion of immigrants in the US population would affect their views on immigration. It did not.

And if you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts — inference, intuition, and so forth — to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.

Nyhan ultimately recommends a supply-side approach. Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, he suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the “reputational costs” of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. “So if you go on ‘Meet the Press’ and you get hammered for saying something misleading,” he says, “you’d think twice before you go and do it again.”

Unfortunately, this shame-based solution may be as implausible as it is sensible. Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery. Getting a politician or pundit to argue straight-faced that George W. Bush ordered 9/11, or that Barack Obama is the culmination of a five-decade plot by the government of Kenya to destroy the United States — that’s easy. Getting him to register shame? That isn’t.

Joe Keohane is a writer in New York

Dan Pink on What Motivates Us

10.06.10

Dan Pink is the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It is designed to help employers get the most out of their employees by exposing the difference between internal and external incentives. Essentially, he is saying that the “carrot on the stick” or the “do this and get rewarded” (external motivators) model is not working with the bulk of 21st century jobs. He provides the triad of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the new “operating system” of internal or intrinsic motivation.

Autonomy: People want to have control over their work.
Mastery: People want to get better at what they do.
Purpose: People want to be part of something that is bigger than they are.

Below is a 20 minute summary of the book that he presented at TED in 2009. Although not without its flaws, I found his argument helpful in thinking through the whole subject of motivation.

Hat tip to a reviewer of the book on Amazon for pointing out this talk.

Link to Dan’s site: http://www.danpink.com/

Link for TED: http://www.ted.com/

Link for video: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

Obviously We Don’t Know Religion

09.29.10

Americans may debate about religion all of the time, but it only portrays our ignorance.  The White Horse Inn has been saying for years that Evangelicals don’t understand the basic tenets of Christianity.  But we are not the only ones in the religious landscape that don’t understand the basics of our faith.  This is to be expected because “pew-sitters” really don’t care.  They just want to feel good about themselves and not work hard to get there, by-and-large.  And we are not requiring education of the world religions or philosophy in public schools.  They are not even required in most colleges, but are mere electives.  So what else do we expect…

Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/us/28religion.html

Pew Survey: http://www.pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

September 28, 2010

Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans

By LAURIE GOODSTEIN

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

“Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Among the topics covered in the survey were: Where was Jesus born? What is Ramadan? Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation? Which Biblical figure led the exodus from Egypt? What religion is the Dalai Lama? Joseph Smith? Mother Theresa? In most cases, the format was multiple choice.

The researchers said that the questionnaire was designed to represent a breadth of knowledge about religion, but was not intended to be regarded as a list of the most essential facts about the subject. Most of the questions were easy, but a few were difficult enough to discern which respondents were highly knowledgeable.

On questions about the Bible and Christianity, the groups that answered the most right were Mormons and white evangelical Protestants.

On questions about world religions, like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, the groups that did the best were atheists, agnostics and Jews.

One finding that may grab the attention of policy makers is that most Americans wrongly believe that anything having to do with religion is prohibited in public schools.

An overwhelming 89 percent of respondents, asked whether public school teachers are permitted to lead a class in prayer, correctly answered no.

But fewer than one of four knew that a public school teacher is permitted “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.” And only about one third knew that a public school teacher is permitted to offer a class comparing the world’s religions.

The survey’s authors concluded that there was “widespread confusion” about “the line between teaching and preaching.”

Mr. Smith said the survey appeared to be the first comprehensive effort at assessing the basic religious knowledge of Americans, so it is impossible to tell whether they are more or less informed than in the past.

The phone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish in May and June. There were not enough Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu respondents to say how those groups ranked.

Clergy members who are concerned that their congregants know little about the essentials of their own faith will no doubt be appalled by some of these findings:

¶ Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.

¶ Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.

¶ Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.

The question about Maimonides was the one that the fewest people answered correctly. But 51 percent knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon, and 82 percent knew that Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic.

Tragic Suicide on the Steps of Memorial Church

09.28.10

WARNING: This is heavy stuff.

Below is the chilling story about Mitchell Heisman of Somerville who committed suicide on the steps of the Memorial Church in the yard of Havard University on Saturday, September 18.  As if that were not enough of a story, it is the 1900-page suicide note, yeah, manifesto, which took him over 5 years to write that is the jaw-dropper.  According to his book, entitled “Suicide Note”, he began to contemplate the meaninglessness of life when he was 12 years old, after the death of his father.  He steeped himself in the works of Nietzsche among other works of nihilism, and resolved early on that he would end his life upon articulating his rationale in tome form.  It is a sorrowful irony to say, “Life is meaningless, let me tell you why…”.  It seems like he devoted his life to helping others understand what he thought was the meaning of his death.

Here is the article: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/09/27/book_details_motives_for_suicide_at_harvard/
Here is the note/book: http://www.scribd.com/doc/38104189/Mitchell-Heisman-Suicide-Note

What he left behind: A 1,905-page suicide note

Author described nihilistic outlook

By David Abel, Globe Staff  |  September 27, 2010

In the end, no one really knows what led Mitchell Heisman, an erudite, wry, handsome 35-year-old, to walk into Harvard Yard on the holiest day in his faith and fire one shot from a silver revolver into his right temple, on the top step of Memorial Church, where hundreds gathered to observe the Jewish Day of Atonement.

But if the 1,905-page suicide note he left is to be believed — a work he spent five years honing and that his family and others received in a posthumous e-mail after his suicide last Saturday morning on Yom Kippur — Heisman took his life as part of a philosophical exploration he called “an experiment in nihilism.’’

At the end of his note, a dense, scholarly work with 1,433 footnotes, a 20-page bibliography, and more than 1,700 references to God and 200 references to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Heisman sums up his experiment:

“Every word, every thought, and every emotion come back to one core problem: life is meaningless,’’ he wrote. “The experiment in nihilism is to seek out and expose every illusion and every myth, wherever it may lead, no matter what, even if it kills us.’’

Over the years, as he became more immersed in his work, often laboring over it 12 hours a day, Heisman shared bits with friends and family but never elaborated on the extent of his nihilism — his hardened view that life is vapid and nonsensical, that values are pretense, that the “unreasoned conviction in the rightness of life over death is like a god or a mass delusion.’’

He told them he was working on a history of the Norman conquest of England, cloistered in a cramped apartment he shared in Somerville. They knew the clean-shaven young man from suburban New Jersey, who always called his elderly godmother on her birthday and once donated $200 to Harvard Hillel for sponsoring services at Memorial Church, to be intensely committed to his work.

Neither his mother, sister, nor the roommates from whom he sought forgiveness in the hours before he died had any idea he was about to kill himself. They and others have been groping for answers to why he did it and in such a public way, on such a holy day.

“He was very cordial, very charming, you would never know that something was wrong,’’ said Lonni Heisman, his mother. He frequently told her he loved her, and had recently visited to help her prepare for a move. “I’m still in shock and I can’t understand how he could have hid this,’’ she said. “He had everything going for him. He was in perfect health. He was handsome, smart, a good person. I’ll never understand it.’’

She said he was a gregarious child who grew introverted after his father, an engineer, died of a heart attack when Mitchell was 12 years old. As he got older, he became increasingly bookish and went on to study psychology at the University at Albany in New York, where he seemed shy to friends and spent much of his time reading.

After college, Heisman worked at bookstores, including the Strand in Manhattan, enabling him to amass a library of thousands of books. About five years ago, he moved to Somerville to focus on writing and be near major university libraries.

He led a Spartan existence, subsisting on microwave meals, chicken wings, and energy bars, and surviving mainly on money left to him after his father’s death. He was tall, with dark eyes, and dated when he needed a break from his solitude, rarely having trouble attracting women. But he broke off the relationships quickly, saying he was too busy writing a book.

To help him concentrate, Heisman often listened to a constant loop of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,’’ which he felt synthesized the mind’s competing strains of emotion and reason, went to a gym daily, and took Ritalin, which his mother thinks may have induced depression and led to his suicide.

One of his longtime roommates, David Barnes, described Heisman as quiet and considerate, never angry. He engaged in conversation by asking questions; when he spoke he often gave deliberate, lengthy responses. “He could get intense talking about his book,’’ Barnes said. “There was definitely a lot of emotion pent up in this project.’’

Barnes and relatives said Heisman bought the gun, a .38-caliber pistol, three years ago, though they don’t know where, and they believe he had only one purpose for it: to commit suicide when he finished his book.

“He wasn’t going anywhere dangerous; he wasn’t paranoid; he wasn’t worried about anyone hurting him or breaking in,’’ Barnes said. “I couldn’t imagine him buying a gun for any other reason.’’

A month ago, as he began wrapping up his writing, he asked Barnes if he would be a witness to the signing of his will. Barnes thought it was because he cared so much about his book and wanted to ensure it would be taken care of in case something happened.

Two days before his suicide, Heisman seemed elated. He told his roommates he had finished the book. He spent the next day at the post office, buying stamps and preparing packages for friends and family, with the book on CDs.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, Heisman showered, shaved, and ate a breakfast of chicken fingers and lentils, some of which he left on the kitchen counter, something he rarely did. He put on a white tuxedo, with white shoes, a white tie, and white socks, and donned a ill-fitting trench coat, perhaps to hide the gun.

At about 10 a.m., a half-hour or so before he would commit suicide in front of a group touring Harvard, Heisman walked into Barnes’s room. He told him the white clothing was a Jewish tradition, even though he rarely practiced his religion and had given up on the concept of God. Appearing to be in a buoyant mood, he explained the significance of Yom Kippur.

“He said he wanted me to know that if he ever did anything to offend me, he apologized and hoped that I would forgive him,’’ Barnes said.

In his book, which he titled “Suicide Note’’ and scheduled to send to hundreds of people as an e-mail attachment about five hours after his death, Heisman produced an extraordinarily lengthy treatise on why life was not worth living.

With chapter titles such as “Philosophy, Cosmology, Singularity, New Jersey’’ and “How to Breed a God,’’ and citing more than a hundred authors from futurist Ray Kurzweil to the biologist E.O. Wilson, Heisman explains how his views took shape.

“The death of my father marked the beginning, or perhaps the acceleration, of a kind of moral collapse, because the total materialization of the world from matter to humans to literal subjective experience went hand in hand with a nihilistic inability to believe in the worth of any goal,’’ he wrote.

He saw his emotions as nothing more than a product of biology, as soulless as the workings of a machine, making them in essence an illusion.

“If life is truly meaningless and there is no rational basis for choosing among fundamental alternatives, then all choices are equal and there is no fundamental ground for choosing life over death,’’ he concluded.

The darkness of his views has been too much for his friends and family, many of whom have yet to read his suicide note.

“It makes me sad and angry that he didn’t care for any facet of life other than the book,’’ Barnes said.

As his sister, Laurel Heisman, spent last week sifting through what remains of his things — a poster in German, a well-made bed, piles of books in a small room shrouded with a dark curtain — she said she received a separate, posthumous note from him asking that she preserve a website he created to publish his book, a burden she has agreed to bear.

“I love you,’’ he wrote to her.

She wishes she could have made him see more of the beauty of life, and how we create our own value and give our own meaning to life. She might have taken him up a mountain or held him more closely.

“He just told us the safe things, because he knew we would have tried to stop him,’’ she said. “It’s really hard. It’s not like someone who was really depressed because they lost a lover. His whole ideology was wrapped in this concept of nihilism. I wish we could have made him see things differently.’’