You Are Not So Smart

The evidence is clear that humans value being good members of their tribes much more than they value being correct. We will choose to be wrong if it keeps us in good standing with our peers.

In this episode, we explore how that affects politics and science communication, and how it is driving our growing partisan divide.

Direct download: 122_-_Tribal_Psychology_v4.mp3
Category:psychology -- posted at: 4:15pm EST

Last year on this show, we did three episodes about the backfire effect, and by far, those episodes were the most popular we’ve ever done.

In fact, the famous web comic The Oatmeal turned them into a sort of special feature, and that comic of those episodes was shared on Facebook a gazillion times, which lead to a stories about the comic in popular media, and then more people listened to the shows, on and on it went. You can go see it at The Oatmeal right now at the top of their page. It’s titled, you are not going to believe what I am about to tell you.

The popularity of the backfire effect extends into academia. The original paper has been cited hundreds of times, and there have been more than 300 articles written about it since it first came out.

The backfire effect has his special allure to it, because, on the surface, it seems to explain something we’ve all experienced -- when we argue with people who believe differently than us, who see the world through a different ideological lens -- they often resist our views, refuse to accept our way of seeing things, and it often seems like we do more harm than good, because they walk away seemingly more entrenched in their beliefs than before the argument began.

But…since those shows last year, researchers have produced a series new studies into the backfire effect that complicate things. Yes, we are observing something here, and yes we are calling it the backfire effect, but everything is not exactly as it seems, and so I thought we should invite these new researchers on the show and add a fourth episode to the backfire effect series based on what they’ve found. And this is that episode.

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Direct download: 120_-_The_Backfire_Effect_-_Part_Four_v2.mp3
Category:psychology -- posted at: 2:16pm EST

Our guest for this episode, Will Storr, wrote a book called The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science.

In that book, Storr spends time with Holocaust deniers, young Earth creationists, people who believe they’ve lived past lives as famous figures, people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, people who stake their lives on the power of homeopathy, and many more – people who believe things that most of us do not.

Storr explains in the book that after spending so much time with these people it started to become clear to him that it all goes back to that model of reality we all are forced to generate and then interact with. We are all forced to believe what that model tells us, and it is no different for people who are convinced that dinosaurs and human beings used to live together, or that you can be cured of an illness by an incantation delivered over the telephone. For some people, that lines up with their models of reality in a way that’s good enough. It’s a best guess.

Storr proposes you try this thought experiment. First, answer this question: Are you right about everything you believe? Now, if you are like most people, the answer is no. Of course not. As he says, that would mean you are a godlike and perfect human being. You’ve been wrong enough times to know it can’t be true. You are wrong about some things, maybe many things. That leads to a second question – what are you are wrong about? Storr says when he asked himself this second question, he started listing all the things he believed and checked them off one at a time as being true, he couldn’t think of anything about which he was wrong.

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Direct download: 119_-_The_Unpersuadables.mp3
Category:psychology -- posted at: 1:37pm EST

In this episode of the YANSS Podcast, we sit down with legendary science historian James Burke.

For much of his career, Burke has been creating documentaries and writing books aimed at helping us to make better sense of the enormous amount of information that he predicted would one day be at our fingertips.

In Connections, he offered an “alternate view of history” in which great insights took place because of anomalies and mistakes, because people were pursuing one thing, but it lead somewhere surprising or was combined with some other object or idea they could never have imagined by themselves. Innovation took place in the spaces between disciplines, when people outside of intellectual and professional silos, unrestrained by categorical and linear views, synthesized the work of people still trapped in those institutions, who, because of those institutions, had no idea what each other was up to and therefore couldn’t predict the trajectory of even their own disciplines, much less history itself.

In The Day the Universe Changed, Burke explored the sequential impact of discovery, innovation, and invention on how people defined reality itself. “You are what we know,” he wrote “and when the body of knowledge changes, so do we.” In this view of change, knowledge is invented as much as it is discovered, and new ideas “nibble at the edges” of common knowledge until values considered permanent and fixed fade into antiquity just like any other obsolete tool. Burke said that our system of knowledge and discovery has never been able, until recently, to handle more than one or two ways of seeing things at a time. In response we have long demanded conformity with the dominant worldview or with similarly homogenous ideological binaries.

My favorite line from the book has to do with imagining a group of scientists who live in a society that believes the universe is made of omelettes and goes about designing instruments to detect traces of interstellar egg residue. When they observe evidence of galaxies and black holes, to them it all just seems like noise. Their model of nature cannot yet accommodate what they are seeing, so they don’t see it. “All that can accurately be said about a man who thinks he is a poached egg,” joked Burke, “is that he is in the minority.”

Direct download: 118_-_Connections_rebroadcast.mp3
Category:psychology -- posted at: 11:51am EST