This I Believe

Peter - Portland, Oregon
Entered on September 19, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: question

People, no matter what their educational level, socio-economic status, or cultural background, do not choose their beliefs on the basis of evidence. We continue to hold beliefs even when we know that the evidence contradicts that belief. This I believe.

People may change their beliefs after examining reliable evidence that contradicts what they believe, only if they don’t care about, or if they are not vested in, the conclusion of their inquiry. If, for example, one doesn’t really care about which restaurant they’ll go to, but they have a vague intuition, then one’s beliefs may go where the evidence leads them. If, however, an issue really matters to them, regardless of what the issue is, then no evidence is ever sufficient to sway their beliefs. Any evidence that contradicts what one believes will be written off as anomalous, biased, inconclusive, absurd, or even offensive.

Recently, I was asking someone who believed in Karma what that meant, and she told me that Karma is an invisible force of the universe such that “if you do good deeds then good things will happen to you, if you do bad deeds then bad things will happen to you.” I asked her how she explains the case of a person who was murdered but never themselves murdered anyone. She said she couldn’t. After acknowledging similar examples, she concluded that there was simply no evidence for her continuing belief. I asked her if she was sure that the examples given proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was no reason to continue believing, and she said that she was convinced. Then, knowing what she now knows, I asked if she was going to change her belief and stop believing in Karma. She said “No”.

But believing in something with little or no evidence doesn’t just apply to mystical or theological beliefs, but to virtually all of our beliefs, even those empirical beliefs that we think are well founded. Evolutionary biology and global warming are contemporary examples of ideas in which many people have a great force of conviction. However, when asked about even the basic tenets of evolution, the vast majority of people are clueless. Have you really looked over and dispassionately examined the data for global warming? Or, does “a thousand repetitions equal one truth,” and do you defer to the experts who constantly fill the airwaves? I don’t mean to imply that global warming and evolution are false, but rather that we are very quick to lend our beliefs to something—and then wed ourselves to those beliefs–without having really looked into and examined what we believe.

The case of global climate change is particularly interesting, because it illustrates the relationship between people’s beliefs and ideology. With few exceptions, republicans have fallen on one side of the debate and democrats on the other. Even smart, educated, thoughtful people who have a particular ideological bent but who have not bothered to really examine the issue, buy into their particular ideology’s take. That one doesn’t choose one’s belief and that one then weds oneself to a belief that is less based on evidence and more based on other factors, is just more pronounced and more obvious with global climate change due to the scientific complexity and the polarizing nature of the issue. In fact, regardless of the subject, people’s beliefs do not follow the evidence.

As Americans, I think we confuse the right to believe with the truth or falsity of belief. Anyone is free to hold any belief that they desire, but holding a belief does not make it true.