Why is everyone so certain of their political, cultural, and religious positions, while everyone else is equally certain their own differing views are in fact the correct ones? Is this simply a matter of stubbornness, arrogance or misguided thinking, or is the problem more deeply rooted in brain biology? This article in Salon by Robert Burton discusses the Certainty Epidemic:
“modern biology…is telling us that despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of primary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of rationality or reason. Feeling correct or certain isn’t a deliberate conclusion or conscious choice. It is a mental sensation that happens to us.”
“The importance of being aware that certainty has involuntary neurological roots cannot be overstated. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas — from opposing religious or scientific views to contrary opinions at the dinner table.”
This article reminds me of a similar article I read last year, Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die.
“Because a basic tenet of both skeptical thinking and scientific inquiry is that beliefs can be wrong, it is often confusing and irritating to scientists and skeptics that so many people’s beliefs do not change in the face of disconfirming evidence. How, we wonder, are people able to hold beliefs that contradict the data?
This puzzlement can produce an unfortunate tendency on the part of skeptical thinkers to demean and belittle people whose beliefs don’t change in response to evidence. They can be seen as inferior, stupid, or crazy. This attitude is born of skeptics’ failure to understand the biological purpose of beliefs and the neurological necessity for them to be resilient and stubbornly resistant to change. The truth is that for all their rigorous thinking, many skeptics do not have a clear or rational understanding of what beliefs are and why even faulty ones don’t die easily. Understanding the biological purpose of beliefs can help skeptics to be far more effective in challenging irrational beliefs and communicating scientific conclusions.”
The truly amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or that people can be so irrational, but that anyone’s beliefs ever change at all.