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Who Are Your Friends?

February 18, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

How do people decide who their friends are? I don’t just mean the friends they interact with in their social lives, I mean the groups of people from all countries and cultures who affect their lives less directly.

Here’s an example I heard in a recent podcast. Many people will prefer to believe an unqualified, biased person trying to sell them some sort of alternative medical therapy (such as homeopathy) when they would ignore their doctor or the medical establishment as a whole.

Here’s another one. Many people believe right-wing bloggers who are clearly biased and completely unqualified to comment on the subject they are discussing instead of the vast majority of experts on climate science.

Or maybe they will believe their local priest, minister, pastor, imam, rabbi, etc instead of the evidence presented by scientists who are supported by a vast array of data carefully collected over centuries.

Before I continue I would like to say that I don’t think every alternative medicine is ineffective, although I do think the vast majority of them are (some are even dangerous). I also think there is a reasonable cause for debate on some aspects of climate change, but that’s not really connected with what the deniers say. And I think that many religious leaders are nice people and have great wisdom in certain areas, but that doesn’t include the origin of the universe or the diversity of life on Earth.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, what am I actually trying to say? What I’m really saying is that most people are close minded, lazy, and apathetic. They only look at sources which are likely to say what they want to hear, they can’t be bothered looking at a reasonable cross section of the evidence for a subject that affects them, and they don’t care what the real truth is in many cases.

The problem is that these people do tend to to affect society as a whole (for example by voting) even though they are incapable of making a reasonable decision. So they buy a lot of alternative medicines and make the charlatans rich, they dismiss climate change (for purely political reasons) and cause their political leaders to fail to act, and they prevent science being taught properly to a generation who really need it.

In a way its easy to see why people make bad friends. If I had a disease which required unpleasant conventional treatment and even then couldn’t be guaranteed to be completely successful I might be attracted by the claims of the alternative medicine proponents who claim to offer a guaranteed cure by just swallowing some herbs. And if climate change wasn’t true we could just carry on in the same wasteful way we do now. That’s much better than having to make any changes to our lifestyles. And I would certainly find the idea of a loving god and a heaven waiting after death better than a universe devoid of the supernatural.

I think it goes further than that though. I think it extends to an anti-intellectual bias. I often get the impression that behind climate change denial there’s a bigger issue, the denial of science itself. Sure we should be skeptical of what scientists tell us but we should also be skeptical (in fact more so) of right-wing bloggers who tell us the opposite. All it requires is to apply the same standards to both sides and look at all the evidence.

So what happens if we do that? People would use about 10 alternative medicines (the ones which might just work) instead of the (apparently) 10,000 I see in most shops. They would say that, while there is some doubt, the evidence for global warming is sufficiently good that we should act on it. And they would say, yes I enjoy the social aspects, the history and the other cultural aspects of religion but there is no god, no heaven and hell, and evolution and the big bang are well tested and well established theories.

But people are very good at selecting which evidence to believe and which not to. I could take some of them into a room full of books full of information supporting a theory and they would still prefer to believe a contradictory note hastily scribbled in crayon on a piece of paper by the door. I guess you just can’t force them into acting rationally!

  1. shirhashirim
    February 19, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    “I guess you just can’t force them into acting rationally!”

    That wouldn’t be rational ;-)

  2. ojb42
    February 19, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Ah yes, good point. If I forced them to be rational they would only be doing it because I made them. That would be like me being forced into saying I’m a devout Christian when I obviously aren’t! Just a facade.

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