David's Reviews > Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris
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May 25, 10

bookshelves: science
Read in May, 2010

As someone interested in the psychology of religion, it's always interesting to me how cognitive weaknesses play a role in establishing and maintaining religious beliefs. Some atheists are wont to believe that religion is a kind of mental illness, but this book (and others) make it clear that's really not so. The vast majority of religious people are cognitively normal. It's just that normal human cognition is very prone to making certain kinds of errors, and religious memes propagate very easily on this substrate. As an example, for a religious person to admit that there are no gods, they have to confront the enormous cognitive dissonance that they think of themselves as smart, well-educated, pragmatic - but have, for many years, been putting vast amounts of effort, emotion, thought, and perhaps money into something that hasn't the slightest basis in reality. For someone who was devoutly religious, this is the granddaddy of all cognitive dissonance. That so many people manage to confront this and deal with it is quite impressive.

One of the things I like about this book is that for every section on various instantiations of cognitive dissonance and self-justification, they close by talking about someone who has overcome this natural propensity, and done right. The therapist who confronts the fact that she helped people "recover" false memories of abuse, and meets with the affected families to try to set things right. The prosecutor who accepts that he had an innocent man incarcerated for years, and comes back to the case. One of the best examples in my opinion is Edzard Ernst, who is not in this book, as they don't discuss "alternative" medicine. He confronted the fact that he had been giving people useless medical treatments for years, as a homeopathic doctor, and has since become a crusader for science-based medicine.

One of the most disappointing realizations for me, as an educator, is that clear explanation with ample evidence generally will not change people's minds. Many people who think they've been abducted by aliens are well aware of the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, but - for no justifiable reason - reject it as an explanation of their experiences. I've spoken with a climate change denialist who swore up and down that they understood the greenhouse effect just fine - and then immediately turned around and said something clearly contradicting this theory.

Education isn't entirely futile, though. First, if we can educate people before they've formed their opinions on the subject, that will have a dramatic difference. Second, a large-scale, concerted education effort can change some minds. This can lead to changes of the intellectual environment that can persuade others via non-rational means. Smokers in the 1940s didn't understand the link between smoking and lung cancer. Almost every smoker today does understand this link (although they smoke anyway, exercising ample self-justification). But we've managed to convince enough people that the society in the US has changed, and smoking is much less accepted (and as a result much less common).

Science was developed to counteract all the problems mentioned in this book. Nobody likes to be wrong, and scientists are no exception, but they are professionally forced to be. To be sure, being too wrong can cost them prestige, money, or jobs, but they're expected to be wrong fairly frequently. And the whole endeavor of science is set up to make it clear when someone is wrong. Scientists aren't allowed to conduct their arguments in a vague or metaphorical manner, and must be vulnerable to proof that they are wrong (mathematical or empirical). And while individual scientists can be recalcitrant, the discipline as a whole is self-correcting, and moves on. The world would be a vastly better place if everyone aspired to the scientific ideal.
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