‘Reason is slave to the passions’

An American journalist argues that science and facts are no way to win an argument, and agriculture is no exception

How can two well-educated, intelligent people consider the science and come to diametrically opposed conclusions?

Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post correspondent and columnist, asked that question — and answered it.

“It’s because we make our decisions with our guts,” she said during the Dec. 6 Farms at the Table conference in Saskatoon, organized by Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan.

As a journalist, Haspel has been on the food and science beat for about 20 years. In her award-winning column, Unearthed, she regularly writes about issues like biotech, pesticides, organics, nutrition, food additives and food policy. She also operates Barnstable Oyster with her husband at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where they grow 100,000 oysters a year.

“Reason is slave to the passions,” she said, quoting 18th century philosopher David Hume, and that is particularly relevant to the agriculture discussion because many farmers are scientists, as are others in the industry.

“There’s an idea that if you’re a scientist, you’re protected from this because you’re schooled in the scientific method. You are a fact-based reasoner. You’ve been trained to do that,” she said.

However, Haspel described how two highly educated agricultural scientists brought their intellects to bear on the issue of genetically modified organisms, as an example, and came to radically different conclusions.

Haspel said most people think they come to rational decisions based on evaluated evidence. They think their intellect drives decision-making.

But decisions are made based on instincts, cultural affiliation, community, religion, values and gut.

“When an issue comes down the pipe, especially if it’s a charged issue, it’s that mishmash of feelings and values that drives your decision making,” said Haspel.

“We have the gut mode and we have the brain mode and it’s the gut mode that drives us.”

It’s a particularly troubling dilemma for people whose job is to study evidence and figure out what’s true.

A first step to understanding how biases work, particularly confirmation bias, is grasping the human tendency to focus on evidence that supports existing beliefs.

This has become more complicated with the rise of social media and the vast array of news sources.

“It’s gotten easier and easier to surround yourself with news that tells you what you want to hear and people who agree with you,” she said.

“There’s nothing that will entrench a bias further than sitting around with people who think you’re right.”

People are also good at finding ways to reject facts and dismiss evidence with which they disagree.

“Maybe it’s done by people who have skin in the game. Maybe people are incompetent. Maybe it’s fake news. There are all kinds of ways that we do that,” Haspel said.

One study on confirmation bias focused on the power of influencers using hot issues like gun control and nuclear power. It found people evaluate an expert’s credibility based on whether they agree with them.

“So we go out in the world judging not just evidence, but the purveyors of evidence based on our own view of the world. The takeaway here, and it’s a tough one, is that facts are not persuasive,” she said.

“We all have this idea as we go out into the world that if only we can tell people the truth, if only we can fill in their knowledge gap, they will see the world our way.

“In fact, there are situations where facts can actually make it worse. If you present compelling facts that challenged somebody’s worldview, not only do they not believe you, in some cases they can even dig in their heels and be more convinced that their original contention is the case.”

From an evolutionary standpoint, humans developed in an absence of data until about 100 years ago.

“We had to make a decision based on personal experience, family experience, cultural experience. Is it a surprise that our decision-making process is still intertwined with our culture, with our values, with our families, with our communities?

“That’s what human decision making is optimized for. If you’re presented with a so-called fact that challenges that, it feels like a challenge to your community, sometimes to your very way of life. So it makes perfect sense to circle the wagons, to double down, to hoist the flag, to make sure that you are announcing your loyalty, your affiliation, your identity when somebody challenges you.”

Studies have shown that with heightened cognitive skills, higher learning can be a detriment to curtailing bias.

“The more educated you are, it turns out, the better you are at filtering out evidence that doesn’t agree with you; the more susceptible you are to confirmation bias.… So what this means is that education exacerbates partisanship. I think it’s a very scary thought.”

As a journalist, Haspel said finding common ground is a successful approach when doing interviews.

“When was the last time you were sitting across the table from somebody that you actually didn’t have anything in common? But so often we lead with the things that we don’t have in common. We lead with the things we disagree about,” she said.

“When we think about the arguments that get traction — GMOs, organics, pesticide use, animal welfare, antibiotics — there are all kinds of them and the first thing to think about is, is this really a conversation about science or is this a conversation about values?”

Haspel outlined small steps she uses for better communication:

  • be convinced
  • reconsider bias, which everyone has
  • find the smartest person who disagrees with you, and listen
  • identify the other side’s strongest arguments
  • drop anti-science from your vocabulary
  • vet your sources; manage your media
  • reach across the aisle
  • be kind

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