Have you noticed how entrenched belief pervades our political and social life? Of course we have been accustomed to it in religious life for eons. There, for many people, it is the basis of their unswerving allegiance to a particular religion or sect.
But its insidious permeation into political discourse and social interaction has narrowed society’s capacity for fact-based discussion of a variety of political, social, and indeed even scientific issues.
Although we know that throughout history entrenched beliefs have influenced thinking and decision making, now they somehow seem more intrusive, more strident, more disruptive.
Let me begin by defining entrenched belief as a set of convictions that something is true irrespective of the evidence. Engineer Leo Haynes put it this way: ‘Entrenched belief is never altered by the facts.’
Dr Peter A Facione, a researcher at Insight Assessment, a Los Angeles think tank, has this to say about critical thinking:
The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit.’
Entrenched belief is not amenable to critical thinking.
Recent events have shown up entrenched belief starkly and frighteningly:
Take the recent postal survey on same sex marriage, which conclusively supported the idea of changing the Marriage Act to allow people of the same sex to marry. Despite the 61.6% who voted Yes and the lesser number of 38.4% that voted No, conservatives, such as Cory Bernardi, hailed the failed No campaign as an ‘extraordinary success’, and urged opponents to stay mobilized in support of those who ‘know whether they are ‘Arthur’ or ‘Martha’.
Speaking to an audience of 700 delegates at an Australian Christian Lobby conference in Sydney
, Bernardi’s call to arms was echoed by fellow conservative and Nationals senator Matt Canavan who promised he would be attempting to move unspecified amendments to the marriage equality bill in pursuit of his unshakable opposition to it.
This is what I mean by entrenched belief. Bernardi, Canavan and many of their conservative fellow travellers not only believe that the No campaign was right, but also that they must now fight for the beliefs on which it was based despite a clear majority of Australian voters believing that a Yes result was right for this nation. Moreover, they now seek to represent themselves as an oppressed minority that must fight for their entrenched beliefs to overcome those with opposite views.
You will note that their entrenched beliefs are based on their understanding of Christian beliefs. The ACL backs them unreservedly.
Not all his Coalition colleagues are reading from Bernardi’s script. To counter his disruptive intentions, Phillip Ruddoch has been tasked to lead a review into legal protections for religious freedom in Australia as an exercise separate from the marriage equality issue. However, those with the entrenched belief that the marriage equality bill will still restrict religious freedoms intend to contaminate Ruddoch’s review with this imagined threat, hoping that by raising further doubts it can further confuse the issue.
Take another issue – global warming and its causes. Malcolm Roberts, who gets quoted more often than his contribution deserves, has the entrenched belief that “There is no empirical evidence to support the belief that the globe is warming”, although this flies in the face of a mountain of verifiable contrary evidence. Roberts will not be moved, no matter the evidence. But he’s not the only one. His bedfellows include Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Matt Canavan (that name keeps coming up), a multitude of Nationals and some Liberals that continue to be climate sceptics, coal advocates, and opponents of renewable energy. They live encumbered by entrenched beliefs about global warming, fossil fuels and renewables that will not change no matter what the evidence.
How can these lawmakers do their job if they cannot be influenced by evidence, if entrenched beliefs and self-interest govern their behaviour so completely?
Moving into the arena of economics, the neoliberals, notably our Treasurer, still labour under the entrenched belief that giving tax cuts to business, even large multinational corporations, will result in more investment, more jobs and better wages, although there is no evidence to support this entrenched belief, and plenty to refute this trickle down theory.
Scott Morrison, who seems to harbour a cluster of entrenched beliefs, also tenaciously believed that the government did not have a revenue problem but a spending one until he was sunk by the evidence and forced to sing another tune. In the meantime though he pursued the ‘we must cut spending’ line to the economy’s detriment. Entrenched beliefs are dangerous.
Of course Morrison does not restrict his entrenched beliefs to economic matters. He has some rigid religious beliefs about teaching in schools. He is now demanding the right for parents to be able to vet teachings about marriage equality and sexual diversity, and if offended withdraw their children, even though these matters have become part of civil law now that the Marriage Act has been changed to allow same sex marriage.
Entrenched beliefs are dangerous. They override public opinion, the common good, and the beliefs of others, and what’s more dangerous, they resist change.
On the international front we have seen entrenched belief writ large. Even after UN war crimes judges in The Hague found former Bosnian Serbian general Ratko Mladic guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide during Bosnia's 1992-1995 war, and sentenced him to life in prison, the former general, dubbed “The Butcher of Bosnia" remains a hero to many in Serbia, and the mayor of Srebrenica still denies that genocide ever took place, despite the evidence of the thousands of women who lost husbands and sons, subsequently uncovered in mass graves and now buried under a field of white headstones! Entrenched belief is never altered by the facts.
How is it so that entrenched beliefs hold such sway?
A cogent explanation is that we are living in a ‘post truth world’, a world of ‘alternative facts’. Mind you, this is not as recent as we may think. In a fascinating talk recently on the ABC’s Nightlife
, Dr Keith Suter, a futurist and Managing Director of the Global Directions think tank, pointed out that since time immemorial powerful people ‘have lived in a bubble’ where self-interest prevails over the common good. They create their own reality, their own ‘truth’, which governs their behaviour. They believe what they wish to believe irrespective of the evidence, which to those who value facts and reason is anathema.
What then is the explanation for entrenched belief?
Those of you who are interested in a philosophical explanation should read an excellent, but rather long and complex article in The Conversation, A Robert De Niro Theory of Post-Truth: ‘Are you talking to me?’
, which is part of a series from the Post-Truth Initiative
, a ‘Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney’ that, according to the introduction, examines ‘today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.’
The Oxford Dictionary definition of post-truth refers to ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. The problem with this definition is the concept of “objective facts”. Anyone who knows the work of Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, or Ludwig Wittgenstein will know that facts are always contestable.
The article, substantially truncated in the interests of brevity, continues:
…Where does post-truth discourse come from, and who is responsible for producing it?...Post-truth will never be found...There is nothing new about politicians and the powerful telling lies, spinning, producing propaganda, dissembling, or bullshitting. Machiavellianism became a common term of political discourse precisely because it embodies Machiavelli’s belief that all leaders might, at some point, need to lie.
Lying is not an aberration in politics… Political theorist Leo Strauss, developing a concept first outlined by Plato, coined the term ‘noble lie’ to refer to an untruth knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or advance an agenda.
So where is post-truth located, and how did we get here? Post-truth resides not in the realm of the production, but in the realm of reception. If lies, dissembling, spinning, propaganda and the creation of bullshit have always been part and parcel of politics, then what has changed is how publics respond to them.
Facts are social constructions. If there were no humans, no human societies and no human languages, there would be no facts. Facts are a particular kind of socially constructed entity.
Facts express a relationship between what we claim and what exists. We construct facts to convey information about the world.
But this does not mean we can just make up any facts we please. What makes something a fact is that it captures some features of the world to which it refers. The validity of our facts is dependent, in part, on their relationship to the world they describe. Something that fails accurately to describe something, or some state of affairs, is not a fact.
What about “alternative facts”? The idea is not as far-fetched as it seems. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most influential academic texts on the history of science. Kuhn’s concept of paradigms has seeped into public debate. But Kuhn’s notion of scientific “progress” occurring through a change in paradigm not only legitimates alternative facts it depends on them… Even if we do not accept Kuhn’s notion of paradigms, Kellyanne Conway could have meant, as she later tried to claim, that the Trump administration simply had a different perspective on the status of the facts, and a differing view of what facts matter.
The article continues:
Despite the fact that by any standards Western populations are better educated than in the past, we seem to be regressing rather than progressing in terms of democratic practice. This is the post-truth paradox. The more educated societies have become, the more dysfunctional democracy seems to be. The supposed positive link between democracy, education and knowledge appears to be broken.
I could quote still more from The Conversation
article, but my piece is already long enough. To read the whole article, click here
Does this lead us to an understanding of entrenched belief?
For me, the disheartening conclusion is that entrenched beliefs are part of the nature of politics, as indeed they are part of many social interactions. While in many spheres: science, engineering, commerce, and economics to name but a few, facts, logic and reasoning are essential tools, in politics these tools are too often thrown aside to make way for entrenched beliefs.
As entrenched beliefs are not altered by the facts, we need to understand that those who cling to them cannot be persuaded to another view. In the same way that we accept physical deformities in those who have them, and do not seek to change them, it seems we need also to accept entrenched beliefs in those who hold them. To try to change these entrenched beliefs to ones we consider more suitable might be seen as laudable, but we need to understand that such a change may be difficult, if not impossible.
Instead of becoming frustrated and angry at the hopelessness of effecting changes to the entrenched beliefs of our politicians, calm acceptance of the nature of entrenched beliefs, and unruffled tolerance of those who hold them, may be a healthier option for us as we attempt to maintain our mental equilibrium in today’s dizzying post-truth world of politics.
What do you think? Please let us have your opinion.