Ben Carson and the range of human psychology; Michael Shermer and the perception of the real world

This New Republic piece, The Truth About Ben Carson: Smart People Can Believe Crazy Things, addresses what I find most interesting about this Republican candidate who, though evidently a brilliant neurosurgeon, seems to have surrendered his intelligence in so many other matters to an amalgam of Bible stories, conspiracy theories, and self-enhancing fantasies about past events. (Brian Williams comes to mind.) (And, via Gawker, see this revealing photospread of Ben Carson’s house.)

The New Republic article explains how Carson is an example of how even intelligent people can believe weird things, as explored in Michael Shermer’s 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Times (cited in the article, and which I read years ago), and summarized here:

First, great intelligence doesn’t immunize a person from indulging in magical thinking or pseudo-science. Second, even very smart and accomplished people can be fantasists.

Citing Shermer:

The smarter and better-educated you are, the more powerful you are at coming up with arguments to justify your positions. In effect, intelligence and education give you the skills at becoming entrenched in motivated reasonings. In Shermer’s words, “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending belief they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” This explains the engineers who become 9/11 truthers, the Supreme Court justices who think the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays, the distinguished mathematicians who think HIV is not the cause of AIDS. It also explains Ben Carson.

This afternoon I was glancing through a couple books on my to-read shelf (by Chris Mooney and Jonathan Haidt) that explore the psychological issues behind the deep political divide that currently characterizes American politics, and was triggered to write the following:

The rise of the reality-challenged right-wing is partly an effect of the internet (enabling like-minded people to form virtual coalitions and insulate themselves from rival opinions and challenging facts), but to a larger degree an effect of the very change, the increasing rate of change over the past century, that has given rise to science fiction. Given the range of human personalities and characters, the groups that clings to past certainties and resisting any evidence that would affect their worldview, are increasingly, as change happens ever more swiftly, doubling down, shutting out challenging evidence.

Yet the interesting question underlying this behavior is — *why* does this range of human personalities exist in the first place? Presumably, because it must have some evolutionary advantage. Not a simple one – it must be about the overall evolutionary advantage of the particular *range* of human personality types that exist.

Beware the naturalistic fallacy -– just because something exists (for example, that something exists because it has over millennia had an evolutionary advantage) does not mean it *ought* to exist, or to put it a couple other ways, it doesn’t mean it’s *right* in the sense that human society should acknowledge and promote it, and it doesn’t mean that it’s *right* in the sense of corresponding to reality. Here’s where we circle back to a central premise: the human mind has evolved to facilitate survival – not to be an accurate perception of the real world. Which means, we can still rightly examine the evidence, using reason and evidence to overcome the biases of the human mind, and conclude that some human personality types are, in fact, more accurate perceptions of the real world than others.

Note that this is not about there being one correct psychology and perception of the world and variations which are to one degree or another incorrect. Nor is it even about a spectrum of variations, with two extremes (liberals vs conservatives, or whatever other terms might apply). It’s about a variety of psychological tendencies that are mixed and matched in any one person, and greatly affected by family, community, and culture. The entire range presumably exists because it enables psychological flexibility in the different environments and situations that have existed over the past millennia, just as a wide ‘genetic pool’ of physical characteristics within an individual species, the presence of diversity, is critical to avoiding single-point failures that might doom too specific a species that would not survive a particular kind of environmental change.

This range of psychological tendencies is about the optimization of the human mind for human survival – not, as I’ve said, about accurate perception of the real world. (This assumes there is a ‘reality’ independent of human perception and understanding, but numerous lines of evidence suggest that there is. This way lies epistemology.) But this *does not mean* that some tendencies of human psychology don’t result in more accurate perception of reality than others.

The issue is more whether that matters.

Clearly there are ways of living every day life and promoting the well-being of one’s descendants that do not depend on conscious understanding of how human biology works, or whether the earth goes around the sun or vice versa, or whether authority figures can be trusted, and so on and so on. Every person develops a sense, as they grow up especially, about how to decide what’s probably true and which things matter: generally, a heuristic for getting through life. Some people are more comfortable with certainties, with polar identification of right and wrong; others are comfortable with ambiguity, of tolerating disorder, of being open to new experiences. Any of these attitudes can work, and obviously do.

But surely there are issues where accurate perception of reality matters, especially issues of long-term threats to survival that thwarts most people’s near-term perception of danger. The current most obvious example: Is climate change real? If it is and too many people put off doing anything about it for too long, its effects will not treat humanity kindly. (My prediction: nothing will be done about climate change until it is too late. That is: within the next century, coastal cities will be flooded, and millions of people will be displaced or die. It is not in the nature of the human species to perceive and react in time to long-term threats to survival.)

Coincidentally, this theme dovetails with this Michael Shermer essay at Scientific American: Did Humans Evolve to See Things as They Really Are?. My bold.

One of the deepest problems in epistemology is how we know the nature of reality. Over the millennia philosophers have offered many theories, from solipsism (only one’s mind is known to exist) to the theory that natural selection shaped our senses to give us an accurate, or verdical, model of the world. Now a new theory by University of California, Irvine, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman is garnering attention. (Google his scholarly papers and TED talk with more than 1.4 million views.) Grounded in evolutionary psychology, it is called the interface theory of perception (ITP) and argues that percepts act as a species-specific user interface that directs behavior toward survival and reproduction, not truth.

Well, of course! This is one of my theses – provisional conclusions – and seems an obvious conclusion based on any amount of data and experience. Of course, second-hand intuitive conclusions are not the same as rigorous scientific studies, like the one Shermer describes. Shermer, oddly, seems a bit skeptical. Yes, human perception has to be accurate to a degree – but he is not acknowledging the vast scope of the universe, which exhibits qualities that humans do not perceive accurately at all. Sure, in the range of human experience, human perception is more or less accurate – but only to the degree that it enhances survival.

P.S. I have these fantasies about writing an actual book, but with worries about how I could ever write enough to fill an entire book. And then I write posts like this, (and the previous one), which once I’m done I see go on paragraph after paragraph, to such length I figure no one will ever actually read it: TL;DR. I think if I ever gather my thoughts together into a cohesive book, I will need a really good editor.

Tonight’s music: Philip Glass, The Hours

This entry was posted in Psychology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.