Sunday, April 27, 2008

We believe what we believe

Steven Pinker, a man whom I greatly admire, has written a wonderful book, The Blank Slate, which reads like an adventure story. In it, at one point, he mentions evidence I have alluded to earlier, a massive study which indicates that, in the U.S. at least, where citizens have guns there is less crime. Makes sense to me; after all, if I'm a mugger and I think that citizen X is likely to be packing, I'm more inclined to leave him or her alone. If I'm drugged, crazy, or desperate, then all bets are off, of course.

My point here, though, is that Steven Pinker, very rational person, burster of bubbles, can't quite bring himself to accept the evidence. He says something to the effect that , well the evidence is there but I'm not sure I can accept it.

And why not? What is it that makes people of sound mind shy away from accepting certain propositions? Not only about guns, of course, but about all sorts of things - lifestyle choices (euphemism alert!), religious beliefs, life after death, no life after death, UFO's, conspiracies, you make it. You are usually either for it or agin it. The stand seems to come before the evidence. That is, you believe in something and then you search for evidence to support what you believe in. Counter evidence is either dismissed or seen as somehow "flawed."

Case in point. For years now there has been mounting evidence that the first Americans didn't come across a land bridge from Siberia, but coast-hopped along the North and South American continents all the way to Tierra del Fuego. The opposition to this theory has been vigorous, voluminous, and sometime vitriolic (sorry, hit the alliteration button on my computer). Aside from the fact that tenure and fame are at stake, I think that some scholars simply believe in the land bridge, even though the evidence indicates that it wasn't there.

In my down days I think that nothing can change such beliefs. I think they are buried too deeply in our theory of the world to be rooted out and changed. On my up days, I think that perhaps people can change deeply rooted beliefs. Today, I'm kinda drawn to the words of Matthew Arnold:

Charge once more then, and be dumb
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall
Find thy body by the wall.

1 comment:

bekkieann said...

Talking with a liberal friend yesterday about watching the 60 Minutes interview with Justice Antonin Scalia, we both admitted we were surprised upon watching that we found him to be quite likeable and admirable. I'll admit I had previously formed a very negative opinion of him and held a great dislike for him solely because of his strong conservative leaning. But to see more about who (and why) he is, and to hear him speak and laugh and express his opinions in a conversational way, made him more real and human, and gave me a perspective I lacked (and had not sought out). I don't agree with his politics any more than I did before, but I do respect him more and will listen more carefully to his opinions in the future - trying not to view only through my liberal lenses.

I am guilty of what you describe here. I guess we all are.