A person with a conviction is a hard person to change
Julie Beck has an interesting article in the Atlantic, which includes an account a famous 1957 book, When Prophecy Fails. From the article:
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,” Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Fails, their 1957 book about this study. “Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.”
This book stimulated Alison Lurie’s wonderful novel Imaginary Friends, about a similar situation, an enjoyable novel well worth reading.
Later in the Atlantic article:
Outside of a lab, this kind of selective exposure is even easier. You can just switch off the radio, change channels, only like the Facebook pages that give you the kind of news you prefer. You can construct a pillow fort of the information that’s comfortable.
Most people aren’t totally ensconced in a cushiony cave, though. They build windows in the fort, they peek out from time to time, they go for long strolls out in the world. And so, they will occasionally encounter information that suggests something they believe is wrong. A lot of these instances are no big deal, and people change their minds if the evidence shows they should—you thought it was supposed to be nice out today, you step out the door and it’s raining, you grab an umbrella. Simple as that. But if the thing you might be wrong about is a belief that’s deeply tied to your identity or worldview—the guru you’ve dedicated your life to is accused of some terrible things, the cigarettes you’re addicted to can kill you—well, then people become logical Simone Bileses, doing all the mental gymnastics it takes to remain convinced that they’re right.
People see evidence that disagrees with them as weaker, because ultimately, they’re asking themselves fundamentally different questions when evaluating that evidence, depending on whether they want to believe what it suggests or not, according to psychologist Tom Gilovich. “For desired conclusions,” he writes, “it is as if we ask ourselves ‘Can I believe this?’, but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, ‘Must I believe this?’” People come to some information seeking permission to believe, and to other information looking for escape routes.
In 1877, the philosopher William Kingdon Clifford wrote an essay titled “The Ethics of Belief,” in which he argued: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”
Lee McIntyre takes a similarly moralistic tone in his 2015 book Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age: “The real enemy of truth is not ignorance, doubt, or even disbelief,” he writes. “It is false knowledge.”
Whether it’s unethical or not is kind of beside the point, because people are going to be wrong and they’re going to believe things on insufficient evidence.
It’s an interesting article. That last statement in the quotation above does strike me as peculiar. It seems to say that ehtical concerns are irrelevant if they are raised about things people do. I’ve always considered that the things people do are the very focus of ethical concerns. We don’t say that because people will be doing murder, arson, and theft that considering those unethical is beside the point. If ethics is irrelevant to what people do, then what is the point of ethics?
What she seems to have meant to say (but did not say) is something along the lines of “It can be argued that jumping to conclusions and ignoring evidence that contradicts one’s beliefs is unethical, but people do it a lot and it’s worthwhile to figure out why—especially if doing such things is unethical.” But what she wrote seems to me to be simply wrong.
I do agree, though, that memes are self-protective and, since (in my view) our identity is built from the memes we harbor, we naturally try to protect the memes that we host.