Dangerous MIS-reasoning in the name of survival

            Anyone who has followed the fuss over fracking has heard opponents of the process claim that it causes earthquakes. According to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey, (the USGS), that’s not true. Human-caused earthquakes are occasionally triggered by the permanent disposal of wastewater from oil and gas drilling in deep wells, but rarely by fracking. Don’t count on anti-frackers to give up their inaccurate claim, however.


            Anyone who has closely followed the fight over genetically modified foods has probably heard the charge that GM crops have caused hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers to commit suicide. This oft-repeated and emotionally powerful claim, initiated by Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, is also not true, as is well-documented by many, including Keith Kloor in a lengthy piece in Discover magazine. Still, GM opponents cite this tragic falsehood as part of their Gospel.

            Dr. Helen Caldicott continues to claim that nearly a million people may already have been killed by the release of radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986, and that these deaths are being covered up by the United Nations and World Health Organization, a fear mongering claim oft-repeated by more virulent anti-nuclear advocates despite ample evidence that this is paranoid exaggeration. (See this thoughtful analysis by UK environmentalist and author George Monbiot.)

            Fluoride causes cancer. Childhood vaccines cause autism. Climate change is a hoax. Where do all these patent mistruths come from? Why do so many people, including some who are very bright, cling to such mistruths despite massive scientific evidence laying them to rest? And why is resistance to that evidence so fierce that, consistently across all these issues, anyone who challenges these mistruths is accused of being corrupt or part of some giant conspiracy out to protect their own self-interest?

            There is a clear pattern here, a pattern we need to worry about, because it puts us at risk. These behaviors demonstrate that, as Paul Slovic and others have found, our perception of risk is the product of powerful instincts and emotions that cause us to worry more about some things than we need to, and less about some things than we should. We fear human-made risks (nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops) more than natural ones, and risks that are imposed on us (fluoride) more than risks we choose to take. We fear not being in control. So some of us fear the products and technologies (fracking, GMOs) that provide profits to the large companies that some feel have too much power over our lives, and some of us fear the intervention of government (on environmental issues like climate change) for taking away too much personal control.

      None of those factors have anything to do with the facts of fracking or GMOs or nuclear power or fluoride or vaccines or climate change, but everything to do with why some people distort or deny the evidence. We see the facts through instinctive and emotional filters that help us figure out how to protect ourselves, not through some mythical objective reasoning computer-like mind. Survival is the brain’s principal job. Staying alive is the ultimate rationality.

     Still, we do reason. So why does overwhelming evidence not change some people’s minds? We usually don’t research things in detail on our own and make up our own minds. It’s faster and easier (the brain doesn't have to work as hard) to adopt the position held by the group with which we most closely associate. That feels safe. Agreeing with our group means we’re accepted as a member in good standing, protected by our tribe. Compromise feels threatening, since giving ground could get you kicked out of the tribe; so physically threatening, in fact, that, when somebody argues that they’re right and you’re wrong and that your views are not consistent with the facts, it triggers an autonomic biological stress response, the same Fight or Flight or Freeze response associated with survival. That’s why as you defend your view your blood pressure rises, your face gets red, your throat muscles tighten and your voice gets higher, and you feel that visceral tension in your chest and stomach and muscles.

      It’s also why our brain does all sorts of subconscious manipulation of the evidence, so we can see the facts the way we want to, the way we need to in order to defend our view and keep ourself safe. And the more our sense of identity and safety derives from our affiliation with our group, the more ardently we fight to maintain our position, the wilder our claims - a million people killed by Chernobyl, Indian farmers committing suicide because of GMOs - the louder we yell, and the more influence our passions and mistruths have on the policies that affect us all.

     Which is more than a little scary…since our instincts and emotions lead us to fear some things more than the evidence says we need to or less than the evidence says we should, and we scream and yell and distort and deny the facts to get the policies that feel right, even though they may not be the evidence-based policies that would protect us the most.

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