Ignoring Inconvenient Facts

Roger Pielke Jr. links to a report on a study that identified a remarkable ability of our brains to ignore inconvenient facts:

The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say.

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

The study offers a clear empirical basis for a phenomenon I’ve anecdotally identified in my own experience: the way liberals accuse us (the mainstream media) of a conservative bias, while conservatives accuse us of a liberal bias.

It also goes a long way to explain the scientization identified by Sarewitz: the ability of both sides on a contested issue to find science that supports their argument, while successfully ignoring or explaining away the science raised by the other side.

I like Roger’s snark:

If this study is correct then those “junk science” and “war on science” folks will each probably find a way to ignore or discount its conclusions! But on a deeper philosophical note, does this mean that those who allege that either Republicans or Democrats are worse abusers of science are in fact themselves abusing science?


  1. Here’s a question for climate scientists that’s ignored: Why is the temperature lapse rate in the troposphere adiabatic, and how is that going to change?

  2. Eli –

    David Broder and his ilk (a tribe of which I am a minor member) spend their days listening to the sort of partisans tested in the Emory study. Their email inboxes are filled with said partisans’ ruminations, regular and routine evidence of their ability to embrace convenient facts and ignore the inconvenient. That’s why the study resonated with my experience.

    That said, it’s both humbling and disconcerting to entertain the truth that you point – the study’s implication that none of us are the rational actors we think we are.

  3. John, if I may, I thought you guys were paid the big bucks to separate the wheat from the chaffs and take the heat. I must say a lot of the partisans in your tribe have turned in their brains at the door, and others have turned into fax machines, something I find regretable. I can find endless examples of when the press swallowed distortions whole.

  4. The problem, Eli, is that this study clearly shows that one partisan’s wheat is the other’s chaff.

    We are paid the small bucks to do the separating. Sometimes we do a good job and sometimes we don’t. But my experience is that, often, when partisans accuse us of checking our brains at the door, turning into fax machines and swallowing distortions whole, they’re basing the accusation on the sort of skewed reading of the evidence that the Emory study suggests. I’m not saying that’s always the case, but the common experience of partisans on both sides of an issue criticizing our coverage of that issue because of “obvious bias” is strongly suggestive.

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