I’ve mentioned cognitive dissonance a lot in my blogs. It’s a problem that plagues practically every thought we ever have. Everything from politics to philosophy, from medicine to physics, from music to television, cognitive dissonance is a bitch. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, I’ll let the man who coined the term sum it up for you:
This theory centers around the idea that if a person knows various things that are not psychologically consistent with one another, he will, in a variety of ways, try to make them more consistent. Two items of information that psychologically do not fit together are said to be in a dissonant relation to each other. The items of information may be about behavior, feelings, opinions, things in the environment and so on. The word “cognitive” simply emphasizes that the theory deals with relations among items of information.
This comes from Leon Festinger’s 1962 article “Cognitive dissonance” from Scientific American 207 (4), page 93. To illustrate this phenomenon, Festinger likes to use a smoker. Imagine a man smoking a cigarette. Ask him if cigarettes can kill. He’ll acknowledge they can while taking another puff. On the one hand he believes smoking is enjoyable. On the other hand he believes smoking is life threatening. This is a rather insignificant example of cognitive dissonance at work, but I think it’s a good example.
We can find a very remarkable example by looking at creationists. In this post my aim is to argue that it’s our (non-creationists) fault that creationists believe what they believe. We are not the only reason. Surely, their religions play some role, but there’s no denying that we push creationists to hold onto those beliefs after they’ve experienced severe cognitive dissonance.
On the one hand many creationists, particularly young earth creationists, believe the earth was created by god in six literal days around 6,000 years ago. On the other hand, they know there is undeniable evidence to support a much, much, much older earth created by natural processes. This undeniable evidence is rather uncomfortable, so they seek to mitigate this discomfort by surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals to reinforce their original, young earth beliefs.
When dealing with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we are faced with three choices: 1) We can accept the new, undeniable evidence and drop our previous untenable beliefs, believing instead in the thing we can support with evidence. This is very difficult to do because one must admit they were wrong. Even admitting that to yourself is often difficult. Imagine admitting it to the world. But it’s possible, and it completely alleviates the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. 2) We can try to keep our original untenable beliefs by justifying the new evidence with our old beliefs. For example, the smoker might say to himself, “Yes, smoking is dangerous, but my grandfather smoked two packs a day and lived to be 98. I’m not worried.” The creationist might say the new contradictory evidence is supported by the bible (even when it’s not). Finally, 3) We can completely ignore the new, undeniable evidence and hold steadfast to our original untenable beliefs. Both 2 and 3 make it impossible to completely alleviate your cognitive discomfort, but it’s possible to lessen the discomfort with them. Young earth creationists tend to do a combination of 2 and 3. Surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals only serves to strengthen their adoptions of 2 and 3.
Meanwhile, creationists tend to do a lot of proselytizing, which puts their beliefs within mockable reach. The more public they become — such as Ken Ham and Eric Hovind — the more their beliefs will be challenged by undeniable evidence and probably mocked by people who have presented this evidence, particularly when they choose to have a public debate with a scientist. While the cognitive dissonance creates extreme discomfort, often causing them to lash out, a cognitive paradox occurs: Should I deny the new evidence and hold onto my beliefs or accept it and confess to the whole world that they were right? The answer isn’t pretty. Again, I’ll let Festinger explain this phenomenon:
[T]he jeering of non-believers simply makes it more difficult for the adherents to withdraw from the movement and admit they were wrong…
This quote comes from Festinger’s 1956 book, When Prophesy Fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world (University of Minnesota Press), page 5. Although creationism at face value has nothing to do with a UFO doomsday religion, this was the seminal work that later led to Festinger’s research into cognitive dissonance theory. We can take those elements from the quote and apply them to creationists: “The jeering of non-creationists simply makes it more difficult for the adherents of creationism to admit they were wrong.”
In other words, our mocks compel creationists to stand their ground, even when we present them with undeniable evidence that completely contradicts creationism. They would rather live a life of maddening discomfort than to admit that the discomfort was in vain. To them it’s about honor over truth.
What is most remarkable, then, is when a creationist accepts the undeniable contradictory evidence, despite their honor. Indeed, considering the amount of cognitive discomfort and mental gymnastics one must go through in order to drop creationist beliefs, it’s extraordinarily honorable to do so. Imagine spending your life believing something so ridiculous as creationism and fighting tooth and nail to prove it, suffering years or torment and mockery because of those beliefs, but also receiving reinforcement from your creationist social support structure, which is extremely difficult to abandon… and then one day you realize it was all a lie. And you publicly confess your failures. That takes guts, and it deserves the utmost social esteem.
This post is not to say we should stop mocking bad beliefs, particularly creationism; it’s merely pointing the finger where the finger deserves to be pointed. We may play a big role in the perpetuation of untenable beliefs, but that’s not our fault; it’s due to natural cognitive failures.