Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:14:34 AM EST
Recently I followed a link out of ET to the website of Susan Blackmore, a freelance writer and researcher on consciousness with a long previous academic career researching paranormal claims. In her article Why I have given up (2001) she details three cases where people she worked with held on to their paranormal beliefs in the face of evidence that nothing unusual was going on.
But the take-home point in her article has a much wider applicability than just paranormal claims.
The lesson we should learn from [these examples] is not that believers find it hard to be open-minded but that we all do.
Or rather, we are all believers in one thing or other and have a hard time considering theories outside our paradigm, let alone dropping the paradigm altogether.
She summarizes the cases thus:
In all these cases the people involved stuck to their own familiar paradigms - and here the much over-used word `paradigm' is quite apposite (Kuhn, 1962). When the results were not as they expected they did not consider the possibility that their whole paradigm was false, but instead preferred to patch it up with ad hoc explanations for every failure. Although James did change his mind in important ways, he did not abandon the idea that aliens were abducting him. But then imagine how hard it would have been for him, or any of them. In all cases they were deeply committed to their world views and to some extent their whole lives were bound up with their beliefs. James was involved with various UFO organisations and with magazines about aliens. David and Virginia made their living out of selling bio-electric shields and other similar products, and David Spark once told me, referring to his work with us "It is the actual focus of my life".
This goes beyond the confirmation bias
that has been mentioned here on ET repeatedly as a pitfall to avoid. It is not just a matter of highlighting favourable evidence and ignoring unfavourable evidence, but a more serious cognitive bias of inserting unfavourable evidence into one's worldview consistently with the existing paradigm along with an ad hoc
justification (a "just so" story) in a way not unlike epicycles being added to Ptolemaic astronomy as astronomical observations of the planets' paths became more and more accurate.
This is related to our earlier discussions of "frames", "narratives" or "mythologies" which are most often the cause of people talking past each other or drawing contradictory conclusions from the same agreed evidence.
Awareness of just how powerful "paradigms", "mythologies", "narratives" and "frames" are, especially when they become entwined with "the focus of someone's life" makes it clear just how difficult fact-based progress is.
Sometimes the convincing force is just time itself and the human toll it takes, Kuhn said, using a quote from Max Planck: "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."