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Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Flat Earth

Neil deGrasse Tyson has landed in hot water over a recent tweet about flat-earthers.

But the reality is, the best education in the world won't stop people from believing in a flat earth if they want to. Critical thinking skills only go so far; trying to educate a flat-earther will just result in a better educated flat-earther.

Belief in a flat earth, like opposition to vaccines, climate change denial, alien abductions, creationism, and other pseudoscience, is rooted in what psychologists call motivated reasoning. We all have biases that affect how we see the world. Our ability to process new information is always filtered through what we already think we know. Our emotions have a much bigger impact on our perception than most of us want to admit. Dan Kahan, who has pioneered much of the research on motivated thinking, describes a classic experiment.

In the 1950s, psychologists asked experimental subjects, students from two Ivy League colleges, to watch a film that featured a set of controversial officiating calls made during a football game between teams from their respective schools. The students from each school were more likely to see the referees’ calls as correct when it favored their school than when it favored their rival. The researchers concluded that the emotional stake the students had in affirming their loyalty to their respective institutions shaped what they saw on the tape.

Additional experiments have shown that most people use the same reasoning in many areas of our lives. We are already biased toward a predetermined conclusion, and we process new information in terms of whether it moves us toward or away from our biases. Kahan and his colleagues have identified three mechanisms which guide us toward the conclusions we expect to reach.

  • Biased information search: We seek out information that confirms our predetermined beliefs.
  • Biased assimilation: When confronted with information that goes against our biases, we find reasons to distrust it.
  • Identity-protective cognition: We dismiss information that might otherwise lead to cognitive dissonance.

As the football experiment above indicates, it's not just conspiracy theorists who do this. Motivated reasoning is important in group cohesion. Daniel Shaw, a former follower of guru Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, talks about how he knowingly chose to believe Gurumayi's lies.

One day shortly after he flew to India, Shaw and the other staff members had gathered for a meeting, and Gurumayi had explained that her brother and popular co-leader was leaving the organization voluntarily. That was when Shaw realized he was being lied to. And when he decided it didn’t matter—“because she’s still the guru, and she’s still only doing everything for the best reasons. So it doesn’t matter that she’s lying.’”

The mind's ability to rationalize any conclusion it has already reached—even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence—creates barriers such that even the best education system will struggle to dislodge pseudoscience from the minds of those who don't want to give it up.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a first-rate educator himelf, with an ability to explain astrophysics to non-scientists in an engaging and entertaining way. But in blaming the school system for flat-earthers, he is merely revealing his own biases.

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