On Evidence and Belief

Maybe you can’t change the world, but at least you can change the way you look at things and how they affect you. Zia Rahman

What do we do when our beliefs conflict with the facts? For example, when our belief in evolution conflicts with our religious convictions? Or when our belief in a free market economy meets head-on the increasing economic inequalities in this country?

Do we stick with the facts and if they are contrary to our beliefs and then modify them? What a dreamer! No, most people tend to discount or reject the evidence in these kinds of situations, especially for deeply held beliefs. Weakly held beliefs may be less resistant to contrary evidence, but given our predilection for selective perception, we are unlikely to know about it.

In the Times (7/5/2014) a while ago, Brendan Nyhan cited evidence from a Pew Research Center study that found 33 percent of the public believes “Humans and other living things have existed in the present form since the beginning of time.” In the same study 26 percent don’t believe there is convincing evidence that the average temperature on earth has been increasing in the past few decades.

Even more striking was his report that individuals are sharply divided along political lines on such issues. “For instance, 46 percent of Republicans said there is no solid evidence for global warming, compared with 11 percent of Democrats.” This suggests that knowing more, being more aware of the evidence tends to increase the polarization between proponents of different belief systems.

So what can be done to bring a person’s beliefs into conformity with the facts? Nylan suggests that we need to break the bond between a person’s political and cultural views and beliefs. That means, for example, dissociating the evidence for global warming from being a conservative or a Republican. Let the facts speak loudest. Understand that you can still be a conservative and believe in global warming. Again, dream on.

Is there any realistic way belief and evidence can be brought into closer agreement? Nothing in the research on changing behavior indicates that any technique, direct or indirect, modest or forceful can do this. Individuals need to find their own reasons for altering a deeply held belief and that will rarely, if ever, come from external influence

But there are times when we change a strong belief or habit. How does that happen? Consider Bertold Brecht’s short story, The Unseemly Old Lady. A respectable seventy-two year old grandmother, who managed a household of five children in a small town in Germany, is suddenly transformed after the death of her husband.

She begins going to the cinema, something she never did before her husband died. Then she starts spending a good deal of time at a nearby cobbler’s workshop located “in a poor and even slightly notorious alley, frequented by all manner of disreputable characters.” During the summer, she would often rise very early, around 3 am, and walk about the deserted streets of the town by herself.

“When you come to think of it, she lived two lives in succession. The first one as daughter, wife and mother; the second simply as Mrs. B, an unattached person without responsibilities and with modest but sufficient means.” Brecht concludes, “She had savoured to the full the long years of servitude and the short years of freedom and consumed the bread of life to the last crumb.”

I view Brecht’s tale as metaphor for how significant changes in belief/behavior can occur quite naturally. They occur after a major change in one’s life, the circumstances in which individuals find themselves.

Her grandmother’s metamorphosis is not an entirely unknown reaction following the death of a spouse. A divorce, job layoff, a personal or spiritual crises, a physical illness, a family inheritance, even a good book, etc. can often set the occasion for striking out on a totally new path.

These are not the kind of conditions that can be induced by an agent of change or, for example, a communication campaign or incentive program. But when they occur naturally, they can exert a powerful effect. They are also relatively infrequent and, as a result, do not often induce a major transformation in one’s life.