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Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life.


Elizabeth Kolbert’s article mentions three books:

…“The Enigma of Reason,” “The Knowledge Illusion,” and “Denying to the Grave” were all written before the November election. And yet they anticipate Kellyanne Conway and the rise of “alternative facts.” These days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run either by no one or by Steve Bannon. Rational agents would be able to think their way to a solution. But, on this matter, the literature is not reassuring.

The Enigma of Reason – Hardcover, April 17, 2017 $20.08

Reason, we are told, is what makes us human, the source of our knowledge and wisdom. If reason is so useful, why didn’t it also evolve in other animals? If reason is that reliable, why do we produce so much thoroughly reasoned nonsense? In their groundbreaking account of the evolution and workings of reason, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber set out to solve this double enigma. Reason, they argue with a compelling mix of real-life and experimental evidence, is not geared to solitary use, to arriving at better beliefs and decisions on our own. What reason does, rather, is help us justify our beliefs and actions to others, convince them through argumentation, and evaluate the justifications and arguments that others address to us.

In other words, reason helps humans better exploit their uniquely rich social environment. This interactionist interpretation explains why reason may have evolved and how it fits with other cognitive mechanisms. It makes sense of strengths and weaknesses that have long puzzled philosophers and psychologists―why reason is biased in favor of what we already believe, why it may lead to terrible ideas and yet is indispensable to spreading good ones.

Ambitious, provocative, and entertaining, The Enigma of Reason will spark debate among psychologists and philosophers, and make many reasonable people rethink their own thinking.

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone  — Kindle $14.99 Hardcover – $17.94

Humans have built hugely complex societies and technologies, but most of us don’t even know how a pen or a toilet works. How have we achieved so much despite understanding so little? Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that we survive and thrive despite our mental shortcomings because we live in a rich community of knowledge. The key to our intelligence lies in the people and things around us. We’re constantly drawing on information and expertise stored outside our heads: in our bodies, our environment, our possessions, and the community with which we interact—and usually we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

The human mind is both brilliant and pathetic. We have mastered fire, created democratic institutions, stood on the moon, and sequenced our genome. And yet each of us is error prone, sometimes irrational, and often ignorant. The fundamentally communal nature of intelligence and knowledge explains why we often assume we know more than we really do, why political opinions and false beliefs are so hard to change, and why individually oriented approaches to education and management frequently fail. But our collaborative minds also enable us to do amazing things. This book contends that true genius can be found in the ways we create intelligence using the world around us.

Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us  — Kindle $11.69 Hardcover – $26.80

Why do some parents refuse to vaccinate their children? Why do some people keep guns at home, despite scientific evidence of risk to their family members? And why do people use antibiotics for illnesses they cannot possibly alleviate? When it comes to health, many people insist that science is wrong, that the evidence is incomplete, and that unidentified hazards lurk everywhere.

In Denying to the Grave, Gorman and Gorman, a father-daughter team, explore the psychology of health science denial. Using several examples of such denial as test cases, they propose six key principles that may lead individuals to reject “accepted” health-related wisdom: the charismatic leader; fear of complexity; confirmation bias and the internet; fear of corporate and government conspiracies; causality and filling the ignorance gap; and the nature of risk prediction. The authors argue that the health sciences are especially vulnerable to our innate resistance to integrate new concepts with pre-existing beliefs. This psychological difficulty of incorporating new information is on the cutting edge of neuroscience research, as scientists continue to identify brain responses to new information that reveal deep-seated, innate discomfort with changing our minds.

Denying to the Grave explores risk theory and how people make decisions about what is best for them and their loved ones, in an effort to better understand how people think when faced with significant health decisions. This book points the way to a new and important understanding of how science should be conveyed to the public in order to save lives with existing knowledge and technology.