Cognitive Dissonance On Display

Cognitive dissonance can be a powerful thing. Many people, when faced with information or evidence that contradicts something that they’ve believed or worked on for a long time will react in some very odd, and often counter-productive ways. There are many examples on the net of people pretending that contradictory evidence simply doesn’t exist. Watch Corny’s site (again, my fave ’cause he’s just plain hilarious) for awhile, and especially read the comments to see many times many examples of this. Others will react with anger and outrage at any hint that such and such is true when it’s been so obvious for so long to them that it’s not. I suspect that many homophobes (read: closet cases) like Rekers fall into this category.

Having said that, it’s rare to see such a thing laid bare. Often you can determine when cognitive dissonance is a factor only after spending a bit of time with the person and seeing how they react to what is said. But there are times, and they don’t happen often, when a statement is made which clearly and concisely lays out exactly where the dissonance is at.

Such a statement appeared in a recent LA Times story entitled “AP IMPACT: After 40 years, $1 trillion, US War on Drugs has failed to meet any of its goals“. Needless to say it doesn’t have many kind things to say about US drug policy. But the quote that really got to me, the one that so clearly exposes a mans cognitive dissonance was a statement made by John P. Walters, the former Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a.k.a. the Drug Czar. In the story he’s quoted as saying the following:

“To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous,” Walters said. “It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided.”

My response is “Exactly!”

But of course he is unable to face the fact that any of those “ridiculous” ideas could possibly by true. So he does what he must to prove it, at least to himself.

Here’s how his logic works: If US drug policy has not been working then all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. Since they obviously have not been wasting their time, US drug policy must be working. If US drug policy has not been working then all these people’s work has been misguided. Since it has obviously not been misguided, US drug policy must be working.

And of course if you turn it around the same logic applies. If these people have been wasting their time, then it must be because US drug policy is not working. Since US drug policy is working, they must not be wasting their time. It’s a nice little loop tied around his brain so that each one proves the other and he can always be right.


I think that many people who are anti-science, or even just anti-my-pet-theory, have trouble not with the science itself but with their own inability to re-evaluate their position. You might remember a post I made awhile back called Cognitive Disfunction. It was about the inability to accept evidence contrary to one’s own belief regardless of the reason. As an example I used the Plane on a Conveyor Belt episode of Mythbusters. As I thought about it more I came to the realization that the major problem there was an inability to re-evaluate the original conclusion that they reached.

In part the problem arose because of that way that it was worded (which was most likely by design). Here again is the actual description of the problem.

[N]ormally a plane sits on the runway, spins up its engines, moves forwards gets enough air over its wings and takes off. But in this case, the plane is sitting not on the runway, but a huge conveyor belt that is matching the planes forward speed in reverse, and the grand question is can the plane take off? The myth is that it can’t

On first hearing it, the mental image that you might form is one of the plane standing still because the faster it moves, the faster the conveyor belt moves, thereby nullifying it’s forward speed and preventing it from getting any airflow over the wings so it can fly. It just remains stationary. I admit that this was my first impression and I was one of those people who were fooled by the wording.

The breakthrough moment comes when you realize that this conclusion is based on the false premise that the wheels are powering the forward movement of the plane. They aren’t. The forward movement comes from the propellers (or possible the jet), which is independent of the wheels. Therefore it doesn’t matter how fast the conveyor belt moves, the plane will move forward.

I think many of the people who were arguing against the Mythbuster’s conclusion were stuck with their first impression of the problem. Arguments that the wheels didn’t affect the forward movement of the plane weren’t even relevant to them because as far as they were concerned the description said that the plane was stationary, and a stationary plane cannot take off. The fact that you were arguing against that simple premise demonstrated that you didn’t actually understand the original description.

A similar problem seems to affect people who are dead set against the Theory of Evolution. I’ve been in many debates with anti-evolutionists who obviously had a great misunderstanding of how evolution works. For example they would say that mutations can only be detrimental, meaning that natural selection could only allow organisms to survive which couldn’t survive because of the mutations. The absurdity of that proves that evolution is false. Or they would question exactly who it is that is deciding which organisms live or die. Without someone to make that decision evolution simply cannot work. These are obviously profound misunderstandings of how evolution works, but of course from their point of view I am the one that doesn’t understand. And just like the stationary plane they are based on initial misunderstandings that they either can’t or won’t re-evaluate.

Paleyism Will Never Die

The design argument relies on ignorance to work. This was just as true for Paley’s watch as it is for current Intelligent Design theory. The basic thought process is this (for the design argument known as the Watchmaker Analogy):

  1. The complex inner workings of a watch necessitate an intelligent designer.
  2. As with a watch, the complexity of X (a particular organ or organism, the structure of the solar system, life, the entire universe) necessitates a designer.

Step 1 relies on our knowledge of the watch and how it was designed and created. Step 2 relies on our ignorance of X and how (or even if) it was designed and created. The idea is that we should explain what we don’t know in terms of what we do know, and since we know that the watch was designed, we should be able to explain what we don’t know about X as the product of design as well.

I’m not here today to argue the merits of this. Rather I wanted to point out the simple fact that such arguments will never go away.

“But Venture,” I hear you say, “as we learn more we’ll be better able to explain X as a result of natural processes, thereby chipping away at this argument!” There is one glaring problem with that view. History has shown us that the more we come to know, the more we also come to know how much we don’t know. It’s not that ignorance increases along with knowledge but that our awareness of our ignorance increases. The sophistication of the Intelligent Design arguments are a testament to that. Scientists such as Michael Behe use our ignorance to great effect by providing very detailed explanations of exactly what it is that we don’t yet understand and making a design inference from that.

The fact is that the design inference will never go away because it relies on our knowledge of one thing to explain our ignorance of another thing, and as science progresses we will always become more and more aware of both.

Bet They Didn’t Ask The Important Questions

Take a look at this new article over at Science Daily about morality and religion.

Here’s a link to the original article which appeared in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences

Citing several studies in moral psychology, the authors highlight the finding that despite differences in, or even an absence of, religious backgrounds, individuals show no difference in moral judgments for unfamiliar moral dilemmas. The research suggests that intuitive judgments of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments.

This is obviously false. The fact that you can’t have morality without Jesus proves the morality doesn’t exist without Jesus which proves that this entire study is false.

Maybe you atheists should try using logic for once instead of blindly accepting whatever some scientist says just because he has “evidence”.