For years, I have tried to help illuminate the important role that sociology and psychology play in the debate about origins. For example, if a critic of Intelligent Design hears "God" when "ID" is spoken, just what is that critic reacting to? The ID proposal? A proposal of divine intervention? A belief in God? Furthermore, what if the evidence for ID is subtle and not extraordinary?
Michael Shermer offers a synopsis of a very interesting study that helps us appreciate the significance of these considerations.
Shermer begins with a discussion of his Republican and Democrat friends:
I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.
As one who has been participating in the ID debates on the Internet for years, I can make the same observation (without making any claim of close friendship) – Both the ID proponents and the ID critics seem to be "equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position." Shermer calls this "confirmation bias":
This surety is called the confirmation bias, whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence. Now a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study shows where in the brain the confirmation bias arises and how it is unconscious and driven by emotions.
You should read the entirety of Shermer's report to get a better handle on the brain research (or better yet, track down the actual research paper when it comes out). For example, the researcher explains:
"Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones," Westen said.
Shermer then explains that confirmation bias is not a problem in science:
In science we have built-in self-correcting machinery. Strict double-blind controls are required in experiments, in which neither the subjects nor the experimenters know the experimental conditions during the data-collection phase. Results are vetted at professional conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. Research must be replicated in other laboratories unaffiliated with the original researcher. Disconfirmatory evidence, as well as contradictory interpretations of the data, must be included in the paper. Colleagues are rewarded for being skeptical. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Yet Shermer, who often comes across as a cheer-leader for scientism, may be displaying confirmation bias here. His ideas about the practice of science seem awfully naÃ¯ve and idealistic. More significant is that he provides no scientific evidence that the "built-in self-correcting machinery" does always buffer against confirmation bias. At the very least, there may be some issues that are difficult to test and so easily stray into emotion that the "self-correcting machinery" begins to short circuit. Perhaps the topic of Intelligent Design is just one of those issues.
What we do know is that many scientists get extremely emotional about the topic of ID. Furthermore, there are more and more editorials being written in scientific and academic publications that actually seek to arouse emotions by portraying ID as a threat to Science and American leadership, clearly developing a partisan-type mentality when it comes to the concept of ID. What would happen if we could submit such ID critics to a fMRI analysis while critiquing ID?
Shermer ends his report by noting, "Skepticism is the antidote for the confirmation bias." But what if the skepticism is selectively applied? Isn't that the very essence of confirmation bias?
As for myself, I have long tried to take this advice to heart, acknowledging that my own ID views could very well be wrong, while also admitting that my own views are too vague and weak to be labeled "science." I have tried to steer clear of the heavy-handed partisanship by acknowledging that my critics are not being irrational for denying my views, and even showing a willingness to publicly disagree with other ID proponents about significant issues. Over the years, I have found that only a very small number of critics can meet me at this place and show a similar form of reciprocation. For most critics, I am still stupid, dishonest, or deluded because I don't agree that ID is Dangerous Bunk.
Their confirmation bias is showing.
[Let me give a HT to Krauze for first noticing Shermer's report.]