Links and Comments: Science, Religion, and Biases

Neil deGrasse Tyson, creationists, religion and the intelligentsia, risk assessment. And tarantulas.

NYT Magazine, 17 April (presumably to appear in print next Sunday): Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinks Science Can Reign Supreme Again.

But curiosity is also part of what drives people down anti-vaccine rabbit holes or toward conspiracy theories, isn’t it?
So what I left out is a tandem awareness we must have that would go along with curiosity, and that is self-awareness of bias. I’ll give an example: Among religious people who want to change the science curriculum — that’s a very small subset, by the way, of religious people — many of them see the universe as perfectly ordered and beautiful. Because they see the things that are beautiful. If you look at religious posters that have quotes, usually from the New Testament, those quotes are on top of beautiful sunsets. They’re not on top of the underbelly of a tarantula, which occupies the same world as that sunset. Or ticks sucking blood from its mammalian host. Or —

This echoes a point I made years ago (my own observation, not something I read). Believers think gorgeous sunsets are somehow evidence of the divine. But if a god made the entire universe, a pile of dung is just as much the product of divine creation. If you think a beautiful sunset is particular evidence of God, something else is going on in your mind that perception of the divine.

(And what would that be? I could speculate on that too; see E.O. Wilson.)

The interview goes on with key points about public perception of science, how authority is worthless in science, and so on.

Here he talks about cognitive biases.

So again, my own bias — let me just think. Here’s a bias. I think anybody — unless there’s brain damage — can learn anything. That’s not scientifically demonstrated: I’m operating on the assumption that if any human has learned it, then any other human can learn it. It’s sort of a noble bias, right? It’s consistent with how I want the world to be. As an educator that’s a bias I carry, and I’m self-aware.

This may be true in principle, but it’s not true in fact. I used to think that you could lay out the facts of a situation and trust anyone to draw the logical conclusion. Not true; people double down on prior beliefs and find ways to dismiss or discredit the evidence.

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The latest from among endless examples:

Salon, 14 April, Jon Skolnik: Republicans who pushed Arkansas’ anti-trans ban just passed a bill to teach creationism in schools, subtitled, “The anti-science connection behind the right’s anti-trans push and the move to return creationism to the classroom”

There are large numbers of people (described as conservatives) who refuse to understand what a scientific theory is, who decline to view the evidence, who cling to infantile ideas of what the world is or should be.

By infantile I mean — the preference for simple-minded ideas about the world, and for that matter the commitment to a set of ancient texts (the Bible, the Quran, whatever) in preference to anything learned or thought since then, is like the child with a favorite book or set of books who refuses to abandon them, who reads them throughout life to the exception of anything else, sure that nothing else can be as emotionally comforting and simplistically fulfilling as their childhood revelations.

And it’s not unfair to point out that people like Bentley —

“For Bentley, creationism dictates her anti-trans views,” he wrote. “For Bentley, the Bible demands her bigotry. And it’s not enough that she believes it, she wants the machinery of the state to push this creationism in public school classrooms. That is, of course, unconstitutional.”

— are evidently too self-centered, or simply too dim, to understand the principle of the separation of church and state, which the US Constitution they claim to venerate supposedly guarantees.

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NYT, 10 April, Ross Douthat: Can the Meritocracy Find God?, subtitled, “The secularization of America probably won’t reverse unless the intelligentsia gets religion.”

The flaw in his argument — the most common one made by theists — is that he presumes the “intelligentsia” should adopt *his* religion.
Paul Hidalgo quotes Douthat, and comments:

Ross Douthat wants the intelligentsia to get religion. “They have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.” Well, but, all of that is true. So…

There’s actually a case to be made that subsuming one’s personal integrity to the wisdom of the crowds, or the myths of one’s community, benefits society, and even the individual. Group thinking. Thus the mistrust of people who think for themselves, who view the evidence and draw conclusions that contract the supposed wisdom of the ancients.

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As I’ve said, my favorite print magazine is The Week. The editors sample news and opinions from a wide variety of sources, left and right, but at least, unlike the fundamentalists and conspiracy zealots, their heads are screwed on straight. From the opening editorial of a recent issue:

The human brain has two systems for assessing risk, and one isn’t very reliable. The neocortex, which developed relatively late in human evolution, can make rational, risk-reward assessments based on evidence, data, and logic. The amygdala, a more primitive region we share with other mammals, reacts instantly to perceived threats with fear, anxiety, and the fight-or-flight response. Strong emotions often overrule logic, so our brains are biased to overreact to exotic risks like terrorism, plane crashes, and tarantulas, while downplaying the much greater likelihood we’ll die of the flu, a car crash, heart disease — or COVID. For the past year, the pandemic has made us all subjects in a massive experiment on human risk assessment. We haven’t done very well. Too many Americans decided that going about their usual activities without a mask or social distancing didn’t feel as risky as the experts were saying … and as a result, they caught and spread an invisible contagion. More than 560,000 have died.

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One more, if only for the title: The Atlantic, 10 April: Vaccine Refusal Will Come at a Cost — For All of Us, subtitled, “People who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine will have higher health-care costs. The rest of us will foot the bill.”

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Two mentions of tarantulas in one post!

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