Why more facts won’t change your mind

Historian John Dickson has an excellent piece in the SMH on why we believe things. It counters the idea that we believe something based purely on the evidence, as recent studies have shown that often evidence can cause people to simply become more entrenched in their opposing view.

The evidence for biological evolution is good, but my six-day creationist friends seem to get stronger in their beliefs with every new peer review article from the scientific mainstream. Counter-evidence does not conquer belief.

The shoe is frequently on the other foot, too. The evidence that Jesus’ life unfolded pretty much as the Gospels say it did is strong. Leaving aside the miraculous elements of the story – which historians tend to ignore anyway – there is no substantial doubt in the community of specialists on the historical Jesus, regardless of religious persuasion, that the Galilean teacher named Jesus gained a reputation as a healer, showed scandalous openness to ”sinners”, clashed with the elite in Jerusalem and was crucified by Pontius Pilate before being hailed by his first followers as the risen Messiah. Yet ardent sceptics are able to maintain a straight face when declaring that Jesus probably didn’t live or that, if he did, he was nothing like the figure in the Gospels. Their faith is as impervious to evidence as that of the most fundamentalist Christian.

In the end, people’s prior beliefs will remain unscathed and perhaps even enhanced.

He points to Aristotle who says there’s three ‘controlling factors’ of belief: logos – the intellectual dimension; pathos – the emotional or psychological dimension;  and ethos – the social or ethical dimension. That is, it’s not merely facts, but how we feel about them, and perhaps more importantly, the impact of the society, culture  and groups we are in: we tend to trust people we like more than people we don’t like. Who we hang around with with heavily influences the beliefs we adopt.

What counts in debate is a combination of intellectual, aesthetic and social factors. I find it interesting that Christian believers will very often admit that their convictions emerged in this threefold way; that their faith rests on the holistic basis of logos, pathos and ethos. For Christianity, indeed, satisfies all three dimensions of our existence. But what is especially interesting to me as I reflect on Aristotle and the research on the ”backfire effect” is the way sceptics rarely admit that their scepticism rests on the same combination of reasons.

Dickson points to his Atheist friends who claim that its purely a matter of the evidence (as do mine!), yet notes that in many cases, these friends have eventually admitted that their rejection of religion came from “some painful event in the past that called into question God’s existence or some ugly encounter with a religious hypocrite that caused them to distrust religious claims”.

Personal and social factors prove as important as intellectual factors in the formation of belief and unbelief, whether on religious, ethical, political or social matters.

If anyone is to be persuasive, he says, whether evangelical Christian, secularist or climate change lobby, is not just more facts, but “a narrative that stirs our hearts and a social movement that wins our trust.”

What do you think?