How Thinking Goes Wrong: Resisting Change

The War on Terrorism: Do our leaders and military really understand that we are not fighting another country in this war? It appears that we are really fighting several elusive networks of small groups that have no geographical base. Can our military and intelligence change their traditional focus?

Environmentalists have been crying wolf about running out of oil since the late 1960’s. Americans have learned to ignore the warnings. Are we approaching the point where demand exceeds supply? Are we prepared for $60, $80, or $100 a barrel oil?

Global Warming has been dismissed as a tree-hugger fantasy by many commentators on Talk Radio. Recently, the evidence accumulated by scientists has been given credence by many major corportations (BusinessWeek cover story, Aug 16, 2004). Can the leaders of the industrial countries cooperate to make the necessary changes?

Most of us are threatened by new ideas.

In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson calls this resistance an ideological immune system: “educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions” (1993, p. 54). According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become (and remember, we all tend to look for and remember confirmatory evidence, not counterevidence), the greater the confidence in their ideologies. The consequence of this, however, is that we build up an “immunity” against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones. Historians of science call this the Planck Problem, after physicist Max Planck, who made this observation on what must happen for innovation to occur in science: “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning” (1936, p. 97).

Psychologist David Perkins conducted an interesting correlational study in which he found a strong positive correlation between intelligence (measured by a standard IQ test) and the ability to give reasons for taking a point of view and defending that position; he also found a strong negative correlation between intelligence and the ability to consider other alternatives. That is, the higher the IQ, the greater the potential for ideological immunity. Ideological immunity is built into the scientific enterprise, where it functions as a filter against potentially overwhelming novelty. As historian of science I. B. Cohen explained, “New and revolutionary systems of science tend to be resisted rather than welcomed with open arms, because every successful scientist has a vested intellectual, social, and even financial interest in maintaining the status quo. If every revolutionary new idea were welcomed with open arms, utter chaos would be the result” (1985, p. 35).

In the end, history rewards those who are “right” (at least provisionally). Change does occur. In astronomy, the Ptolemaic geocentric universe was slowly displaced by Copernicus’s heliocentric system. In geology, George Cuvier’s catastrophism was gradually wedged out by the more soundly supported uniformitarianism of James Hutton and Charles Lyell. In biology, Darwin’s evolution theory superseded creationist belief in the immutability of species. In Earth history, Alfred Wegener’s idea of continental drift took nearly a half century to overcome the received dogma of fixed and stable continents. Ideological immunity can be overcome in science and in daily life, but it takes time and corroboration.

Link How Thinking Goes Wrong