The Center For Inquiry recently put up an article, Why We Believe Long After We Shouldn’t, discussing the reasons for why people hold beliefs in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, and linking this to cognitive dissonance. One example they gave is the rejection of science, in terms of climate change. They report that an article in Psychological Science written by Stephan Lewandowsky and Klaus Oberauer found that people who identify more on the left politically have a positive correlation between scientific literacy and belief in global warming: in other words, leftists who know more about science are more likely to believe in global warming. Paradoxically, for people who identify more on the right, there was a negative correlation between scientific literacy and belief in global warming. To quote the article:
‘At present, the researchers found, public rejection of scientific findings is more prevalent on the political right than the left, yet, they added, “the cognitive mechanisms driving rejection of science are found regardless of political orientation.” Meaning: It depends what scientific finding it is. Whether your worldview comes from the left or right, you will be tempted to sacrifice skepticism even when your side is promoting some cockamamie belief without evidence. ‘
The article goes on to give a discussion of how a student who feels that cheating is wrong, but not the worst thing, could change into believing that cheating is horrific and anyone who does it should be expelled: if that student chooses to not cheat and take a lower grade, they will feel compelled to justify their decision to themselves. As such, they will redefine how they think about cheating, to emphasize it as an horrible act, far worse than getting a lower GPA.
The article also notes that another way in which people can deal with this dissonance is, essentially, changing the goal posts: they quote an example given by Allport, of how someone who believes ‘Jews are evil’ might change the exact nature of their complaint, from ‘Jews are stingy,’ to ‘Jews try to suck up to everyone,’ when given evidence that Jewish people are not, on average, stingy (the example continues through more iterations, as each new claim about Jews is disproved with evidence).
Denial of science examples are easy to find on the right, with evolutionary science and climate science being prime examples. However, denials of biological and medical science can also be found on the left, such as among liberal anti-vaxxers and those who go from ‘the pharmaceutical industry often engages in fairly unethical behavior,’ to ‘Western science as an whole is worthless.’ But I think, as others have also written, that the worst instance of denial of science and evidence among the left can be seen in the social sciences, particularly as they relate to bigotry. Here, a large group on the left are so committed to the ideas of sexism as a problem against women and racism as a problem against blacks and hispanics, that they will go to any length to protect those beliefs from cognitive dissonance, including denying evidence and changing goal posts/definitions, to preserve those beliefs.
To take an example from sexism, there is a belief that women make only 77% of what men make. But ample evidence exists that on average, men and women make almost exactly the same amount when doing the same job with the same amount of experience. The 77% is only correct when comparing all working women to all working men. And the difference in which types of jobs women take is largely explained by the different values men and women have, on average, when choosing a job (for example, women care more about liking their job than men do, while men care more about the job being high-paying). Not only this, but equal wages are already mandated by federal law. So if a woman did find herself in the position of being underpaid compared to men, she could sue. No company wants to risk getting sued like this and having to face that sort of bad publicity (for further discussion of the wage gap myth, see this video by Christina Hoff Summers).
However, to a person on the left, who has identified the wage gap as emblematic of sexism in our time, it can be very hard to admit that this is not the case. So they will change the definition: sure, men and women in the same jobs make the same amount, but women don’t have the opportunity to take higher-paying jobs! When it is pointed out that male vs. female preferences when looking for jobs explains this, they might change to argue that ‘society needs to value the jobs that women prefer as just as valuable as the jobs men prefer,’ a claim that one wage gap proponent actually made to me when I presented her with the above refutations.
It seems that most people would say that the value of a job should be based on how much that job contributes to society, rather than upon who prefers to do that job, but here, in order to avoid the dissonance that the wage gap doesn’t really exist, we have a leftist who is actually willing to redefine the worth of a job in order to maintain their belief in the wage gap as a result of sexism.
And of course, those who claim that the wage gap is an example of sexism tend to also think sexism can only have negative consequences for women. They disregard the fact that throughout history, men have typically had a much higher chance of taking dangerous jobs, or being sent to war (both of which I would consider as positive things for society, because men are much more expendable than women). Even today, men are much more likely to die in the workplace than women.
Another example is racism. The United States has had terrible problems with racism against blacks and other non-whites in the past. However, today, our laws are equitable (although they are sometimes implemented by people with biases, resulting in some bigoted applications of these laws). But to a person committed to belief in the United States as a ‘white supremacist’ society, it is necessary to make changes to definitions, etc., in order to preserve this belief. For example, claiming that ‘it’s only racism when it happens to minorities,’ to explain why, when whites receive lower priority than blacks, it is not racism (e.g. at the University of Texas, in their admissions). Or that ‘racism’ is distinct from ‘racial bigotry.’ Or claiming that it is racist to believe in a meritocratic system or that ‘the best person for the job should be hired,’ (these were two of the original ‘microaggressions,’ believe it or not). Or that, even where a white person demonstrates no biased opinions, that they still must have ‘internalized racism.’ In addition, every interaction will be analyzed to find ways to read it as racist, regardless of whether such an interpretation would be reasonable or not. For example, when a black person is killed by the police, people jump to immediately assume that this was the result of racism. Now, sometimes it is, but white people are also sometimes killed by police, and black people are frequently arrested without harm; we cannot conclude, just from the fact that a black person was killed by police, that it was the result of racism (particularly when the officer involved was also black).
The examples of racism, in other words, show a continual moving of goal posts and redefining of terms, in order to perpetuate a belief that whites are racists and blacks are victims, in the face of evidence that this is no longer generally the case (it is sometimes the case, of course, just as it is sometimes, though probably more rarely, the case that whites can be victimized by racial bigotry). On the right, problems of evidence also exist when it comes to race, of course, such as refusal to countenance non-race-based hypotheses for the higher rate of incarceration for black people. However, because I am much more interested in improving the left than the right, I tend to focus my criticisms on the left.
In a sense, identity politics and critical theory are appealing precisely because they make it so easy to avoid cognitive dissonance: by denying legitimate methods of scientific inquiry as invalid (‘Eurocentric, patriarchal, colonialist’), and by elevating the personal experience and narrative, it makes for an easy way to dismiss any evidence that conflicts with a person’s preferred narrative. Indeed, identity politics is built precisely on the notion that, when evidence conflicts with narrative, it is the evidence which must be disregarded. Of course, proponents of identity politics will not usually phrase it this way, but it amounts to precisely this. In this way, identity politics and critical theory are also no different than religion, in which, when dogma and evidence conflict, it is presumed that there is something wrong with the evidence (such as how, when geology shows how old the earth is, young earth creationists simply refuse to accept the results as valid science).
Another example of bias might be in biology: a refusal to accept that our biology has a great deal of influence on our behavior, so that many of the differences in male and female behavior can be explained by our sexual dimorphism. Or the refusal to grasp that, biologically, sex is determined by gamete production, and is a binary (or at most quartenary: male, female, hermaphrodite, sterile) thing, and not a continuum. I maintain that we do no service to supporting trans people by denying this biological fact, and yet, even such seemingly clear-thinking a person as Bill Nye has now denied it.
Before ending, it should be noted that this is not just a problem for the far left and for the right. It is also a problem for centrists. The classic example of this can be seen in the 2016 election and its aftermath. Poll after poll showed Sanders was more popular than Trump by a much wider margin than Hillary (who was frequently shown as being approximately tied with Trump), yet many Clinton supporters dismissed these polls as irrelevant for one reason or another (a common one being ‘Sanders has not been “vetted,”‘ or ‘When Trump calls him a socialist, everyone will hate him,’ despite the fact that Sanders openly called himself a democratic socialist from the beginning). After the election, Clinton-style democrats continue to bash Sanders as being unpopular with blacks and women, despite the fact that his highest approval ratings come from, well, blacks and women (his worst approval ratings are ironically among whites and men). In the face of this evidence, these Clinton center-right democrats continue to maintain that Sanders is only able to appeal to white males. Despite Sanders having the highest approval rating of any politician in America, they continue to maintain he is unappealing. They also continue to deny that Hillary’s primary victory was at least in part the result of collusion, voter purging, and cheating on the part of the DNC, despite the Podesta emails showing that this definitively happened, as well as exit poll discrepancies showing a 1 in 77 billion chance that the primary elections accurately counted votes (it is less clear whether Bernie would have won or not without this cheating and collusion, but the fact that it happened is very well established).
So, rejection of evidence is prevalent across all parts of the political spectrum, and across all sorts of issues. If we want to improve the state of the left, as I wish, then we need to acknowledge this and deal with it.