Saturday, April 23, 2011

Is there such a thing as an objective belief?

I have been in a discussion with a science-minded friend of mine about the virtues, or lack thereof, of the positivist mentality--that the methods of science can be applied to disciplines outside of science, he being favorable to it, and me being hostile.

One of the points of his defense is that post-modernists are infected with (among other things) emotion and that their intellectual positions are therefore subjective, whereas scientists are objective, and their intellectual positions are therefore not subjective.

Then comes this blog post from Mother Jones, in which the writer, in an attempt to explain why many people "don't believe science," argues that the reason is that many people's reasoning is inextricably bound up with emotion and prejudice:
... an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called "motivated reasoning" helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, "death panels," the birthplace and religion of the president (PDF), and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.
Now there are several interesting things about this supposed "finding." The first is that it is yet another example of what I call "Duh" Science, which consists of studies that tell us what we didn't need a study to tell us. In this case, we are told that people are not completely objective in the process of forming their opinions.

Gee, who'd o' thunk it?

But applying multi-syllabic Latinate words to this truth does yield that warm, fuzzy science feeling, I'll have to admit: "The 'cultural cognition of risk' refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk."

Then there is the tendency in the discussion of this study that itself displays how the finding applies to those who are touting the study:
So is there a case study of science denial that largely occupies the political left? Yes: the claim that childhood vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism. Its most famous proponents are an environmentalist (Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) and numerous Hollywood celebrities (most notably Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey).
This is really the only case they can find among the lefties? Isn't that convenient. This problem of emotional and prejudicial opinion profiling turns out to be mainly a problem on the right . "No one here but us objective liberals." Add this to the list (Popperian falsifiability, the positivist verifiability criterion) of principles that apply to everyone but those to spout them.

But, getting back to my friend defense of positivism, it seems to me that, if the findings of this study are correct, it explodes his hypothesis that scientists are objective, since the finding that there is a "tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values" would seem like it should apply to positivists as much as everyone else. And if the positivist types who promote such studies themselves then exempt most of their own beliefs from the findings of their own studies, they have unwittingly provided further evidence for their thesis, making the positivist position even more untenable.

20 comments:

Andrew said...

The notion of an amoral objective belief is an Enlightenment idea and is the foundation for the modern expansions of centralized authority, justified by the need to discover ways to better life for man by conquering nature. Now that it is being overturned, those powers are still in place.

Damn.

Singring said...

Nobody claims that the opinions of scientists are prima facie any more or less subjective than those of any others. It is just that scientists are more likely to base their opinions on or correct them against objective, empirical data (or at least data that is as objective as data collected by humans can be).

I don't think you would dispute this, Martin. If you asked two people their opinion on how best you should arrange solar panels on your roof to maximise output and you found out that one was a ballet dancer with no training in physics or engineering, the other an engineer with a PhD in physics, I don't think you'd have too tough a time to pick the opinion you would more rely on.

KyCobb said...

Martin,

of course scientists, as humans, are subject to the same emotional biases as the rest of us. That's why the scientific method isn't about trusting authority, but rather verification by the process of independent verification of observations. There was certainly an era when the left embraced unverifiable beliefs such as Marxism and Kennedy assassination conspiracies. There's just more of it on the Right now.

Thomas said...

So, from Singring and KyCobb, I take it that only beliefs that are testable and empirical are objective?

Singring said...

'So, from Singring and KyCobb, I take it that only beliefs that are testable and empirical are objective?'

Fist of all, I said that the opinions are only as objective as humans are capable of collecting objective data.

I would therefore say that your question is leading and not appropriate. Opinions that can be tested against empirical data are certainly more objective than opinions based on 'intuitions' or 'revelation'. I honestly can't see how this is even debatable.

If one guy says to you 'Cows can fly.' and the other says 'Cows can't fly.', which opinion would you say is the objective - or to be strict - the more objective one?

But since you imply that there are beliefs that are not testable that are objective, could you give us an example and maybe - if you feel up to it - give us a good reason as to why we should believe it is not only objective, but also true?

KyCobb said...

Thomas,

I didn't say that. Perhaps you could give an example of an objective belief which isn't testable?

One Brow said...

Thomas,

I would say there are two sorts of beliefs that are objectively verifiable. Those regarding repeatable empirical phenomena, and those regarding the validity of deductive conclusions from their intial assumptions.

Thomas said...

"Perhaps you could give an example of an objective belief which isn't testable?"

I could give an example of a belief which isn't testable that might be relevant here. The untestable belief: only beliefs that are testable are objectively true.

Singring said...

Thomas,I don't claim and never have claimed that it is in fact ture that all objective facts are empirically verifyable. You just seem to forget that time and again. It could well be that there are oodles of objective facts that are not empirivcally verifyable. It just so happens that everytime I ask for an example of such a fact,the best you or Martin ever come up with is either the classic 'it's self-evident', or, as you have dne just now, you simply come up with a claim that is nothing but a restatement of your original assertion. Maybe you somehow hope people won't notice this slight of hand.

I think we all agree that some set of 'truths' can be derived from empirical data. Lets call that set X. You claim that there is an additional set f truths we can only derive by some other means, a set Y. I fully concede that such a set may exist. But if you read your statement again, you will see that it does in fact in no way constitutes an example of a member of Y because it relies on logic to create on example of a statement hat if empirically tested would result in a circular argument.

So the prize question becomes: since you rely on logic to make your argument, how do you know the axioms from which its iconclusions ar derived are true themselves?

KyCobb said...

Thomas,

"The untestable belief: only beliefs that are testable are objectively true."

Why do you think that belief is untestable?

Martin Cothran said...

KyCobb,

What Thomas said is precisely what I was going to say. If you think it's testable, it seems the burden of proof is on you to say how.

KyCobb said...

Martin,

One can test it by sampling sets of objectively true beliefs. If one finds an objectively true belief which cannot be tested, then the proposition has been falsified.

Singring said...

The burden of proof is in fact on Thomas. He has to supply us with a rather solid argument for the laws of logic being objectively true. Feel free to jump in though, Martin. Give it your best shot.

One Brow said...

Singring,

Of course the laws of logic are objectively true. We determine the laws of logic and the process by which they decide truth and falsity, and in a manner that does not include randomness. The ability to use the laws in an objective fashion is the natural result of this creation process.

Singring said...

I agree, OneBrow. But the starting assumptions of logic are just as arbitrarily chosen as those of mathematics . The only reason we stick to them is because they result in models that match reality very nicely. So Thomas is resorting to a system the use of which is justified empirically to tell us thatit is false to believe that only empirically justified beliefs ar true. What he would actually have to resort to is some objective,non empirically justified way of doing so that he can show is correct.

One Brow said...

Singring said...
But the starting assumptions of logic are just as arbitrarily chosen as those of mathematics .

Of course.

The only reason we stick to them is because they result in models that match reality very nicely.

I would say they make for handy and useful simplifications, but there are many situation where the laws of logic do not model reality nicely at all.

So Thomas is resorting to a system the use of which is justified empirically to tell us thatit is false to believe that only empirically justified beliefs ar true.

You can't justify the use of logic empircally, because there is nothing to measure it against. Deductive systems don't come with a "deviance from reality metric". Their proofs are certainly both objective and demonstrable.

What he would actually have to resort to is some objective,non empirically justified way of doing so that he can show is correct.

The real problem here is that you think there is only one type of truth we can ascertain, when there are at least three types, that can be mixed to the degree oil, vinegar, and parsely can be mixed. All of them approach reality in a different way. One of those methods, formal systems (such as philosophy, mathematics, and logic) primarily uses methods that are objective and demonstrable.

Singring said...

'The real problem here is that you think there is only one type of truth we can ascertain, when there are at least three types, that can be mixed to the degree oil, vinegar, and parsely can be mixed. All of them approach reality in a different way. One of those methods, formal systems (such as philosophy, mathematics, and logic) primarily uses methods that are objective and demonstrable.'

This is true internally for these systems - that is, once you grant the premises or axioms upon which they rest. This is a completely subjective process, (unless you test your selection against some standard), so I don't quite see how simply deriving some conclusion from a system that is internally consistent but rests on a subjective choice of premises can count as an objective truth if a different set of premises would yield a different 'onjective truth'.

One Brow said...

... so I don't quite see how simply deriving some conclusion from a system that is internally consistent but rests on a subjective choice of premises can count as an objective truth if a different set of premises would yield a different 'onjective truth'.

The objective truth is the conclusion of the set of premises.

Singring said...

'The objective truth is the conclusion of the set of premises.'

I know what you're getting at, I just don't agree. Something derived from subjective premises can not become an objective truth. At least that's how I see it. Maybe we'Re just going from different understandings of what exactly we mean by subjective and objective truths.

I agree that once you accept the premises as objective, the conclusions derived from them become objective, but I don't see why I should accept the premises as objectively true.

One Brow said...

Something derived from subjective premises can not become an objective truth.

I agree.

I agree that once you accept the premises as objective, the conclusions derived from them become objective,

We agree.

but I don't see why I should accept the premises as objectively true.

The choice of premises that youregard as true form a personal belief system, an entirely different method for determining truth than a formal system.