Not a former neighbor.

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Stop Hiding From the Truth

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."
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People believe all kinds of crazy things. Three out of four Americans believe there are signs that aliens from outer space have visited the Earth. More than 40 percent think that early modern humans co-existed with dinosaurs. As of 2010, Americans on average thought the U.S. spent a full quarter of its federal budget on foreign aid (the actual figure was about 1 percent).

QuickTake Climate Change

Some erroneous beliefs are particularly dangerous, because they are founded on powerful ideologies and therefore impervious to evidence. Most of the Republican candidates for president refuse to acknowledge that human activity contributes significantly to climate change. The tragic murders of nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were the direct result of an ideology of white supremacy planted into the mind of Dylann Roof by organized purveyors of propaganda.

Unfortunately, as philosopher Lee McIntyre suggests in a new book, disrespecting the facts is a pervasive trend of our era. It represents an erosion of norms about inquiry, established at great expense through humanity's long struggle for survival and ascendancy. Our future, he argues, may depend on how well we manage to preserve a commitment to truth in face of its many enemies.

The problem isn't that people often believe things that aren't true. The real trouble is willful ignorance, typically the result of a strong psychological connection to a comforting ideology that provides ready answers to all questions -- a turning away from reality. "This sort of obstinacy," McIntyre notes, "reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth."

Contempt for the truth is all around us. Consider the cynical and successful strategy of the fossil fuel industry to sow doubt over climate change through a systematic campaign of disinformation. Or the intelligent design movement, which has repackaged creationist religious ideology to look like science. Or the essential insight of modern political messaging -- that framing is everything.

During the recent debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, supporters cast the treaty as an obvious move to further free trade among nations, obscuring other issues at stake, such as the treatment of intellectual property and the ability of corporations to circumvent the regulations of democratically elected governments.

Paradoxically, McIntyre argues, the ascendancy of perception over reality can be traced back to academics, especially in the humanities. In the 1980s, figures such as Bruno Latour began questioning whether science has any authentic claim to establishing truth, or whether it instead merely represents one more perspective or opinion. Although met with broad derision, such arguments were nonetheless successful in sowing doubt about the status of scientific truth.

Many of the same ideas, McIntyre notes, proved useful to the tobacco industry, followed by big oil and coal and anyone else eager to cast fog over scientific knowledge. In the pursuit of truth, the academics accidentally provided ammunition for an assault against it. Some, such as Latour, later regretted how their ideas were used to "fool the public."

McIntyre worries that humanity could be putting at risk one of its most precious resources -- the ability to use logic and evidence to inform intelligent, adapted behavior. This skill is clearly the result of long evolutionary selection. Yet our brains remain prone to a host of biases and systematic errors in reasoning, from confirmation bias to overconfidence. Modern forces have learned to manipulate these to further their own ends.

Can we overcome these weaknesses? McIntyre suggests that it will be difficult. But there are encouraging examples. Pope Francis acknowledged, in his recent encyclical, that climate change is one of the major problems facing humanity today, with "grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods." This from the leader of the church that in 1600 burned Giordano Bruno at the stake for even suggesting that distant stars might be like our own sun.

Ultimately, humans will have to choose. Despite our imperfect brains, we can still decide to respect truth and the process for establishing it. We need more education on the history of human thought, its occasional victories over superstition and magical thinking, and the many losses along the way. Respect for truth has always been tenuous and imperiled.

Perhaps Pope Francis put it best: "Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Buchanan at buchanan.mark@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net