Friday, August 18, 2006

Cognitive Dissonance? Try Cognitive Cacophony

You want your head to hurt? I just read a survey* done with Orthodox Jews - ones who were students at a secular college in New York. This likely means that they're among the most indoctrinated as being exposed to secular influences is considered dangerous verging on heresy, and is only permitted to those who need to go.

Now, get this: one question asked about the age of the universe. 48 respondents said 15 billion years, and 123 said 7000 years. Remember that. 81 said Hebrew was spoken universally everywhere up to 4000 years ago; 88 said no, it wasn't. 22 said the earth revolves around the sun; 151 said it didn't - everything revolves around the earth. And then there was a question with three possible choices about the dinosaurs: lived at the same time as humans; extinct millions of years before the first humans; never existed at all. The numbers were: 68, 70, 31.

Yes. Of the 176 respondents, 24 of them actually manage to believe, simultaneously, that dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago even though the universe is only 7000 years old.

I don't understand how people can do this. Let their 'faith' so completely overwhelm their ability to think that things which are so painfully self-evidently impossible are nonetheless accepted without, literally, a second thought. Possibly without a first thought.

This is what is truly scary about religious fundamentalism. (Well, this and the fact that many of them want to force it on the rest of the world.) These people have the ability to hold two diametrically opposed ideas in their minds at the same time - two ideas which cannot possibly both be true - and apparently not even notice it.

These students, many of them, were studying science.

Yes. Think about that for a moment. Science students who apparently perceive no conflict whatsoever in believing that things can exist on earth for millions of years before the earth even existed.

This will, I suppose, explain how it is that people who do in fact believe such nonsense can become doctors or whatever - they honestly don't see the problem. They are have moved beyond cognitive dissonance (Merriam Webster Unabridged: psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes (as a fondness for smoking and a belief that it is harmful) held simultaneously) - they experience no conflict. Both things are true and that's that.

It seems to me that they can only do this if they make no attempt whatsoever to examine one set of their 'beliefs'. These students (and many like them) have chosen what's true, and what they learn that conflicts with it they simply memorize, parrot for grades or acceptance or whatever, and move on; it never dips below the surface of their mind.

And the set of beliefs they've chosen to relegate to meaninglessness is the set that derives from science - knowledge of the world. Instead, they hold as Truth what others who claim to know tell them, no matter how much it conflicts with observable, provable, reproducible facts - and they can do this because they literally don't think about it.

And yet they're going to be important people in their community (possibly in the larger community - certainly so for non-Orthodox people with the same sort of mind-set, people like politicians we hear from on a daily basis); they're going to be holding positions of authority and making decisions that will affect people in the real world, not just the little part of it that resonates with their faith.

Hypocrites are bad enough, but with them there's always a chance they'll come around. With people like these students, and those like them - it's hopeless. And that's scary.

* Survey reported in Skeptic Vol 12 No 3, 2006: 'Orthodox Jews and Science' by Alexander Nussbaum



At 12:44 PM, August 22, 2006 Blogger King Aardvark had this to say...

It does make my head hurt, but it's not surprising.

At church one day, the power went out. They praised God when the lights came back on; no mention of why God allowed them to go out in the first place.


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