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Science, conspiracy theories and Texas Joe

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The phrase, useful and perfect, is "motivated reasoning."

That's what psychologists call the depressing refusal of many people to absorb and accept indisputable facts that run counter to what they prefer to believe. You can throw all the proof in the world at them and they'll never buy the theory of evolution. You can pile up the evidence and they'll never accept the reality of global warming.

Case in point from the news Wednesday is Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, who says he doubts the reality of climate change because it doesn't sit quite right with the Great Flood in the bible. Other religious people have found ways to reconcile the two -- the Catholic Church long ago urged the flock to view much of the bible as allegorical -- but not folks like Texas Joe.

A brand new study, reported Wednesday by Gary Marcus in the New Yorker online, shows how science doubters tend to be all of a piece.

"The trends were clear," Marcus writes, summing up the study's results. "The more people believed in free-market ideology, the less they believed in climate science; the more they accepted science in general, the more they accepted the conclusions of climate science; and the more likely they were to be conspiracy theorists, the less likely they were to believe in climate science."

The classic case of "motivated reasoning," Marcus writes, was the disproportionate refusal of smokers in the 1960s to believe the first Surgeon General's report linking cigarettes and cancer. Smokers rationalized like crazy. As do climate change deniers today.

My guess is that we all engage in a little motivated reasoning now and then. That's how a nihilist convinces himself to get out of bed in the morning.

All the more reason to take science seriously -- and teach our kids to do the same -- and not do a Texas Joe and turn our back on reason.

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This page contains a single entry by Tom McNamee published on April 10, 2013 6:02 PM.

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