April 11, 2014 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

In my last blog I alluded to the effect of an assumed point of view, particularly a set of ideological set of assumptions around which a community is organized, has on the way we interpret data about how we perceive risks and benefits and make decisions about a range of issues.  I was applying this perspective to public health perspectives such as the risks of gun ownership and forgoing vaccinations. In this blog, I will sketch out a theoretical approach for how humans process and understand information a bit more and conclude with some questions for my next blog about how to understand the obligations of those who are in the best positions to understand public health data, such as the better educated and healthcare workers.

We often assume that most people are capable of coming to objective and fair beliefs and reasonable decisions about various empirical topics, e.g. the effects of climate change, if only we have access to valid, scientific information.  Thus, we often further assume that the goal of having more enlightened people to make more enlightened decisions about public health issues, or for that matter political issues and most other issues of public interest, is simply a matter of bringing to bear more complete and clear knowledge for people to understand. This is the assumption that Dan Kahan (a law and psychology professor from Yale Law School) and his research team calls the “More Information Hypothesis”. However recent research shows that this hypothesis is simply not true—in fact the more information people on opposite sides of an issue get, the more divided and intractable the conflict becomes. The simple fact of making more information accessible clearly does not resolve most public issues that are connected to well-established ideological and philosophical perspectives.

One only has to think of how reasonably educated and intelligent people come to interpret data about topics like abortion or climate change. For both of those issues there are emotionally tinged debates ranging that involve opposing sides within well-defined communities striving to gain ground in setting the political agenda and promoting their policy positions. So when someone from either side of those communities is in the position of having to assess new data that may not support his or her own views about one of their core issues, the ramifications are not only about the validity and truth value of scientific data. Of even greater importance is the implications for how one continues, or not, to identify oneself as a member of that community. This point can be plainly seen when with we think of certain individuals whose names are identified with certain positions or causes. As Erza Klein points out, just imagine if Sean Hannity were to take a fresh look at climate science data and then come out and say that climate change is the most important challenge facing humanity today? The implications for how the community of Tea Party supporters viewed him would be significant. Many of his fans would be outraged that he would change sides in this debate and they would no longer view him has one of their leaders. His own identity as a public figure would change and he would be forced to develop new relationships with individuals and organizations. In a real sense he would go through an identity transformation, not to mention the beginning of a new career track.

Kahan and his research team theorize that because of the tendency to avoid “dissonance and estrangements from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threaten defining values.” The theory they have developed that accounts for this tendency they refer to as “Identity-Protective Cognition.” If this theory holds then how we as individuals view and come to beliefs about the “facts” says volumes about who we are. We naturally tend to protect our identity, the sense of who we are as well as those we have come to trust and love in our own communities. So the examination of scientific data as it pertains to and implications for matters of the heart, as it were, i.e. our deepest commitments about both ourselves and others with whom we have strong bonds of connection, is always a challenge in terms of being objective about forming our beliefs. This perspective cast a whole new light on traditional epistemology.  

The theory of Identity Protective Cognition seems to hold particularly well for those with strong beliefs that are based within a group identity. But for people for whom this applies, if they are well educated and trained in scientific and critical reflective skills and even if they are members of such communities it would seem, at least prima facie, that they should not be so easily swayed. For it would seem that interpreting facts through the lens of how one protects one’s identity within a group sounds like a marked bias—an irrational tendency in how human beliefs are formed. Isn’t the whole purpose of an education to prepare us to be life long learners and responsible, critical thinkers? Is that ideal even possible? More specifically, should there be higher expectations for those with better education, particularly as professional healthcare workers, to make more informed and objective decisions, e.g. the obligation of healthcare workers to get a flu vaccination? These are questions I will take up in another blog.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

1 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy , Health Care Policy , Philosophy , Public Health Ethics



Rhodes wrote on 04/14/14 6:29 AM

True..! If you have complete information, you can definitely settle disputes..!! It differs just because different people have different opinions and it is not at all necessary that they should match.!!

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