In January of 2017, over a thousand psychologists convened at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual conference to discuss the recent uptick in the public’s rejection of scientific data, especially regarding man-made climate change, vaccine safety, and even Darwin’s 150-year-old theory of evolution. Despite the years, decades, and even centuries of research and data and the almost universal scientific backing, so many people are denying the validity of scientific discovery at rates so extreme that the psychologists have termed this the “Anti-Enlightenment Era.”
Psychologists are only beginning to study this phenomenon that leads otherwise intelligent people to reject data that is specifically data-driven or scientific in origin and predates the recent presidential campaign and election. Psychologists want to know why people are resisting science, although it is recognized that fear and anxiety are factors that lead people to react emotionally rather than rationally.
The new administration, which boasts high-ranking members who have openly rejected scientific data, can’t be solely to blame. Under the previous administration, which was known to heavily weigh and promote scientific data, public skepticism of science reached the same kind of fervor that led Galileo to publicly recant his findings, which had confirmed the earlier theories of Copernicus that the earth revolved around the sun. It seems preposterous to us now that Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for heresy and forced to renounce his scientific findings since science has helped us to chart the solar system and beyond, unequivocally validating Galileo’s 17th century findings. But that may be central to how we view this question of whether we’re in a post-fact, anti-enlightenment era.
For one thing, people will hold to what they believe is true even in the face of evidence that proves those beliefs to be wrong. They pick and choose facts that reinforce their place in the group with which they identify. Dan Kahan calls this cultural cognition, a protective mechanism that comes into play and which gives people an emotional predisposition to reject a claim that, if they accepted it, would drive a wedge between them and their group of peers.
The current problem is twofold: people don’t want their beliefs challenged and will actively seek out sources—reputable or not—that confirm their beliefs. The second problem is the recent proliferation of lies as part of mainstream culture, so mainstream, in fact, that we have a sitting president who was elected despite masses of provable evidence that he regularly lies. He has even employed the term throughout his career, created by his ghostwriter—“truthful hyperbole,” which sounds awfully close to the phrase “alternative facts.”
Lies play tricks on the brain, because when processing a lie, the brain must first accept what it hears as true, or possible, before being able to refute it. But that’s where the problem lies, so to speak: refuting the lie is a choice, and one that can be easily disrupted. Some people want to believe the lie if the truth disrupts the familiarity and comfort of their worldview.
There is another problem with lies and the human brain: the brain isn’t well equipped to process lie after lie, especially one that gets repeated in the force and frequency of a machine-gun barrage. The brain can grow weary and give up processing the lie from the fact, accepting the lie as true in what’s known as illusory truth. Hence the effectiveness of fake news.
It was Copernicus who first came up with the theory of heliocentrism—that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun—which Galileo confirmed in a paper in 1609. Ironically, the Roman Catholic Church had no initial problem with this finding. In what was basically a case of personal competition mixed with literal interpretations of sections of the Bible, heliocentrism was disputed only later—and then through what was tantamount to fake news, it was circulated that Galileo was actively going against the church and reinterpreting the Bible in a Protestant manner. Once that belief took hold, nothing Galileo could say would dissuade his critics to the contrary. After his inquisition, Galileo was put under house arrest until his death in 1642.
The biggest consequence of lies and fake news leading to more people living under the shell of their illusory truth is that even refuting the lies with concrete proof to the contrary mostly serves to entrench the people further within their lie. The brain tends to latch on to the familiar component—the lie—and hearing the fact refuting the lie, the brain is simply reacting to the first part, which is the statement of the lie, and not the fact disproving it. Other people have become programmed to only respond to the person telling the lie and will only trust that source, so that any information contrary that comes in will be immediately rejected, without the application of reasoning.
Illusory truth can have long-reaching consequences. It wasn’t until 1835 that the Roman Catholic Church finally removed Galileo’s writings that the earth revolves around the sun from its “heretical works” list—226 years after Galileo first published this observation. It’s hard to say how long this current trend in our society will last or what the ultimate consequences will be. But in a world with so much at stake, researchers are actively trying to get to the heart of the psychology of the brain under the duress of lies and illusory truth.