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  • Dan Connors

We'd rather be dead than wrong?

Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us Sara E. Gorman, Jack M. Gorman 2016

"Two flat earthers die and go to heaven. At the pearly gates they have the chance to ask god any questions they want and get truthful answers, so one flat earther asks god "is the earth flat?" to which god answers "No."

The flat earther looks at the other and says "this goes higher than we thought"." Unknown

Why, in an age where we have a wealth of reliable, scientific information about a host of things that have been studied again and again, are we so lost in misinformation as to be worse off than we were decades ago? Why are there certain things that we cling to, ignoring all conflicting data, rather than admit we were wrong? This is one of the most troubling dilemmas of the information age. So much information, and so much of it WRONG.

Psychologist Sara Gorman and her father Jack Gorman write about this problem in their excellent book, Denying to the Grave. The Gormans are very much on the side of science, and they spend hundreds of pages trying to get inside of the minds of science deniers, especially those who are skeptical of modern medicine.

Bottom line- humans are emotional creatures who once in a while use their cerebral cortex to think critically, but not that often. Thinking is hard, slow, and sometimes frustrating. We approach the world much the same way our ancestors did thousands of years ago- suspicious and fearful. I've always wondered how fantastical conspiracy theories can get so much traction and cause so much damage. In the minds of so many, shadowy elites are trying to control us through vaccines, GMO's, climate change, and gun control, and scientists are somehow in on it.

This strong emotional response, ruled by the amygdala that processes information with an eye for danger, can convince us that almost anything is an existential threat. And once that belief is embedded in there, confirmation bias makes it stronger and stronger by only taking in information that confirms what we already believe. Conflicting information is discounted out of hand as unreliable and probably a product of the shadowy elites.

Depressingly it turns out that many of those who fall for conspiracy theories and science denial are educated, intelligent people. Giving them new information that disproves what they believe not only doesn't work, but tends to make them double down and believe even more strongly in conspiracies.

Our brains don't appreciate complexity or ambiguity. Science can never provide 100% certainty, and that tiny kernel of doubt explodes into conspiracies, as we all saw during the Covid-19 epidemic. We are terrible at judging probabilities and risks- loading up on high-powered guns while being careless in the bathroom (site of most home injuries and deaths), not wearing seatbelts, or avoiding doctors. We rely on the availability heuristic- the tendency to pay the most attention to things we see or hear about, rather than relying on more reliable statistics, which we see as dry and confusing.

The Gormans expand on the scientific method, which is widely misunderstood, and the foundation of most of what we know. They look at how scientists measure causality, which can be a maddeningly frustrating search, especially when it comes to medical problems. So many people use correlation, when things appear to happen together, as proof of causation. Causation is much more complicated than that and can rely on a number of factors or can be totally random, unfortunately. The reason for much of the autism debate around vaccines centers around the fact that autism often shows up around the same time that children get their first round of immunizations. Scientific inquiries into this connection have disproven any causal connection.

I enjoyed this book because it is so connected with the information crisis that we are currently experiencing. Conspiracy theories are getting in the way of scientific progress and responsible governance. Fearmongers are inciting violence and dividing families, all in the name of getting power and influence for themselves. The Gormans repeatedly single out things like anti-vaxxers, gun owners, antibiotic overuse, GMO's, nuclear power opponents, and anti-pasteurization folks. Today there are dozens of conspiracy theories tearing down the fabric of society, and they are making us all fear each other and the experts who are mostly trying to help us.

The book concludes with some solutions that can perhaps open some eyes to the benefits of science and the dangers of being confidently wrong. They take aim at the media, where reporters are ill-prepared sometimes in presenting valid scientific debates. (Climate change is real and getting worse, not a subject for both sides to be presented). Schools should be better at teaching the scientific method and helping students understand probability, which is a more reliable tool than their own limited experiences. Motivational interviewing, where people are encouraged to question their own assumptions, has been shown to open a crack in anti-vaxx or anti-LGBT sentiments. And we all need to examine our tendency of thinking uncritically and relying on emotions to guide us.

The title of this book grabbed my attention and reminded me of the craziness that was the Covid epidemic. Conspiracy theories were widespread about the pandemic, including fake cures, vaccine fearmongering, and mask intolerance. People were literally willing to die for their beliefs, and to kill loved ones by exposing them to a virus that might or might not put them in the hospital. Online, there were the Herman Cain awards, (named after the famous presidential candidate that died after being exposed at a Trump event), that documented social media posts filled with confident misinformation and taunting, followed by requests for prayers as the posters got sick and hospitalized. Why are people so attached to their beliefs and unwilling to question them when their very lives could be at stake? I still haven't figured that one out.

Covid-19, climate change, and guns don't care if you believe in them or not. They can kill believers and non-believers equally well. We need to listen to more scientists and experts (even thought they can occasionally be wrong), and rely on our emotional judgements less. Science, statistics, and modern medicine can save us from ourselves, if we use them wisely.

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