Sunday, 28 June 2015

Fox News, the conservative mind, and echo chambers - or how YECs avoid reality

Given the sheer volume of material readily available today on the subject of evolution and the age of the Earth, it's fair to conclude that YECs are actively working hard to remain ignorant and preserve their distorted view of both Bible and science. That's not in doubt. As to how the YECs maintain that ignorance, science writer Chris Mooney, in a 2014 Alternet article looking into why viewers of the ultra-conservative Fox News are some of the most misinformed on issues ranging from politics to science argues that conservative, authoritarian people seek out environments like Fox News which acts both as a source for validation of their views, and a safe haven where they will find no challenge to their beliefs. In other words, they resolve the cognitive dissonance experienced when reality challenges their worldview by avoiding reality altogether and hiding in an echo chamber. The parallels to evolution denialism in our community are obvious.

Mooney writes:
In his 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger built on his famous study of a doomsday cult called the Seekers, and other research, to lay out many ramifications of his core idea about why human beings contort the evidence to fit their beliefs, rather than conforming those beliefs to the evidence. That included a prediction about how those who are highly committed to a belief or view should go about seeking information that touches on that powerful conviction. 
Festinger suggested that once we’ve settled on a core belief, this ought to shape how we gather information. More specifically, we are likely to try to avoid encountering claims and information that challenge that belief, because these will create cognitive dissonance. Instead, we should go looking for information that affirms the belief. The technical (and less than ideal) term for this phenomenon is “selective exposure”: what it means is that we selectively choose to be exposed to information that is congenial to our beliefs, and to avoid “inconvenient truths” that are uncongenial to them. 
If Festinger’s ideas about “selective exposure” are correct, then the problem with Fox News may not solely be that it is actively causing its viewers to be misinformed. It’s very possible that Fox could be imparting misinformation even as politically conservative viewers are also seeking the station out—highly open to it and already convinced about many falsehoods that dovetail with their beliefs. Thus, they would come into the encounter with Fox not only misinformed and predisposed to become more so, but inclined to be very confident about their incorrect beliefs and to impart them to others. In this account, political misinformation on the right would be driven by a kind of feedback loop, with both Fox and its viewers making the problem worse.
Evolution denialists will do the same thing by creating an echo chamber where dissenting thoughts are absent, gross factual errors are never challenged, and the anti-evolution worldview is therefore reinforced. Extreme evolution denialists who become aware of such places will therefore gravitate to such environments, further reinforcing the denial of reality that exists inside such sheltered environments, leading to the perception among those in that community that their view is normative. 

Mooney's full article is here, and makes for excellent reading in understanding the psychopathology of the evolution denialist.