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We need to understand entrenched belief

By Ad astra

Have you noticed how entrenched belief pervades our political and social life? Of course we have been accustomed to it in religious life for eons. There, for many people, it is the basis of their unswerving allegiance to a particular religion or sect.

But its insidious permeation into political discourse and social interaction has narrowed society’s capacity for fact-based discussion of a variety of political, social, and indeed even scientific issues.

Although we know that throughout history entrenched beliefs have influenced thinking and decision making, now they somehow seem more intrusive, more strident, more disruptive.

Let me begin by defining entrenched belief as a set of convictions that something is true irrespective of the evidence. Engineer Leo Haynes put it this way: ‘Entrenched belief is never altered by the facts.’ Dr Peter A Facione, a researcher at Insight Assessment, a Los Angeles think tank, has this to say about critical thinking:

The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit.’

Entrenched belief is not amenable to critical thinking.

Recent events have shown up entrenched belief starkly and frighteningly:

Take the recent postal survey on same sex marriage, which conclusively supported the idea of changing the Marriage Act to allow people of the same sex to marry. Despite the 61.6% who voted Yes and the lesser number of 38.4% that voted No, conservatives, such as Cory Bernardi, hailed the failed No campaign as an ‘extraordinary success’, and urged opponents to stay mobilized in support of those who ‘know whether they are ‘Arthur’ or ‘Martha’.

Speaking to an audience of 700 delegates at an Australian Christian Lobby conference in Sydney, Bernardi’s call to arms was echoed by fellow conservative and Nationals senator Matt Canavan who promised he would be attempting to move unspecified amendments to the marriage equality bill in pursuit of his unshakable opposition to it.

This is what I mean by entrenched belief. Bernardi, Canavan and many of their conservative fellow travellers not only believe that the No campaign was right, but also that they must now fight for the beliefs on which it was based despite a clear majority of Australian voters believing that a Yes result was right for this nation. Moreover, they now seek to represent themselves as an oppressed minority that must fight for their entrenched beliefs to overcome those with opposite views.

You will note that their entrenched beliefs are based on their understanding of Christian beliefs. The ACL backs them unreservedly.

Not all his Coalition colleagues are reading from Bernardi’s script. To counter his disruptive intentions, Phillip Ruddoch has been tasked to lead a review into legal protections for religious freedom in Australia as an exercise separate from the marriage equality issue. However, those with the entrenched belief that the marriage equality bill will still restrict religious freedoms intend to contaminate Ruddoch’s review with this imagined threat, hoping that by raising further doubts it can further confuse the issue.

Take another issue – global warming and its causes. Malcolm Roberts, who gets quoted more often than his contribution deserves, has the entrenched belief that “There is no empirical evidence to support the belief that the globe is warming”, although this flies in the face of a mountain of verifiable contrary evidence. Roberts will not be moved, no matter the evidence. But he’s not the only one. His bedfellows include Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Matt Canavan (that name keeps coming up), a multitude of Nationals and some Liberals that continue to be climate sceptics, coal advocates, and opponents of renewable energy. They live encumbered by entrenched beliefs about global warming, fossil fuels and renewables that will not change no matter what the evidence.

How can these lawmakers do their job if they cannot be influenced by evidence, if entrenched beliefs and self-interest govern their behaviour so completely?

Moving into the arena of economics, the neoliberals, notably our Treasurer, still labour under the entrenched belief that giving tax cuts to business, even large multinational corporations, will result in more investment, more jobs and better wages, although there is no evidence to support this entrenched belief, and plenty to refute this trickle down theory.

Scott Morrison, who seems to harbour a cluster of entrenched beliefs, also tenaciously believed that the government did not have a revenue problem but a spending one until he was sunk by the evidence and forced to sing another tune. In the meantime though he pursued the ‘we must cut spending’ line to the economy’s detriment. Entrenched beliefs are dangerous.

Of course Morrison does not restrict his entrenched beliefs to economic matters. He has some rigid religious beliefs about teaching in schools. He is now demanding the right for parents to be able to vet teachings about marriage equality and sexual diversity, and if offended withdraw their children, even though these matters have become part of civil law now that the Marriage Act has been changed to allow same sex marriage.

Entrenched beliefs are dangerous. They override public opinion, the common good, and the beliefs of others, and what’s more dangerous, they resist change.

On the international front we have seen entrenched belief writ large. Even after UN war crimes judges in The Hague found former Bosnian Serbian general Ratko Mladic guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, and sentenced him to life in prison, the former general, dubbed “The Butcher of Bosnia” remains a hero to many in Serbia, and the mayor of Srebrenica still denies that genocide ever took place, despite the evidence of the thousands of women who lost husbands and sons, subsequently uncovered in mass graves and now buried under a field of white headstones! Entrenched belief is never altered by the facts.

How is it so that entrenched beliefs hold such sway?

A cogent explanation is that we are living in a ‘post truth world’, a world of ‘alternative facts’. Mind you, this is not as recent as we may think. In a fascinating talk recently on the ABC’s Nightlife, Dr Keith Suter, a futurist and Managing Director of the Global Directions think tank, pointed out that since time immemorial powerful people ‘have lived in a bubble’ where self-interest prevails over the common good. They create their own reality, their own ‘truth’, which governs their behaviour. They believe what they wish to believe irrespective of the evidence, which to those who value facts and reason is anathema.

What then is the explanation for entrenched belief?

Those of you who are interested in a philosophical explanation should read an excellent, but rather long and complex article in The Conversation, A Robert De Niro Theory of Post-Truth:Are you talking to me?, which is part of a series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a ‘Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney’ that, according to the introduction, examines ‘today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.’

The Oxford Dictionary definition of post-truth refers to ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. The problem with this definition is the concept of “objective facts”. Anyone who knows the work of Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, or Ludwig Wittgenstein will know that facts are always contestable.

The article, substantially truncated in the interests of brevity, continues:

…Where does post-truth discourse come from, and who is responsible for producing it?…Post-truth will never be found…There is nothing new about politicians and the powerful telling lies, spinning, producing propaganda, dissembling, or bullshitting. Machiavellianism became a common term of political discourse precisely because it embodies Machiavelli’s belief that all leaders might, at some point, need to lie.

Lying is not an aberration in politics… Political theorist Leo Strauss, developing a concept first outlined by Plato, coined the term ‘noble lie’ to refer to an untruth knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or advance an agenda.

So where is post-truth located, and how did we get here? Post-truth resides not in the realm of the production, but in the realm of reception. If lies, dissembling, spinning, propaganda and the creation of bullshit have always been part and parcel of politics, then what has changed is how publics respond to them.

Facts are social constructions. If there were no humans, no human societies and no human languages, there would be no facts. Facts are a particular kind of socially constructed entity.

Facts express a relationship between what we claim and what exists. We construct facts to convey information about the world.

But this does not mean we can just make up any facts we please. What makes something a fact is that it captures some features of the world to which it refers. The validity of our facts is dependent, in part, on their relationship to the world they describe. Something that fails accurately to describe something, or some state of affairs, is not a fact.

What about “alternative facts”? The idea is not as far-fetched as it seems. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most influential academic texts on the history of science. Kuhn’s concept of paradigms has seeped into public debate. But Kuhn’s notion of scientific “progress” occurring through a change in paradigm not only legitimates alternative facts it depends on them… Even if we do not accept Kuhn’s notion of paradigms, Kellyanne Conway could have meant, as she later tried to claim, that the Trump administration simply had a different perspective on the status of the facts, and a differing view of what facts matter.

The article continues:

Despite the fact that by any standards Western populations are better educated than in the past, we seem to be regressing rather than progressing in terms of democratic practice. This is the post-truth paradox. The more educated societies have become, the more dysfunctional democracy seems to be. The supposed positive link between democracy, education and knowledge appears to be broken.

I could quote still more from The Conversation article, but my piece is already long enough. To read the whole article, click here. Does this lead us to an understanding of entrenched belief? For me, the disheartening conclusion is that entrenched beliefs are part of the nature of politics, as indeed they are part of many social interactions. While in many spheres: science, engineering, commerce, and economics to name but a few, facts, logic and reasoning are essential tools, in politics these tools are too often thrown aside to make way for entrenched beliefs.

As entrenched beliefs are not altered by the facts, we need to understand that those who cling to them cannot be persuaded to another view. In the same way that we accept physical deformities in those who have them, and do not seek to change them, it seems we need also to accept entrenched beliefs in those who hold them. To try to change these entrenched beliefs to ones we consider more suitable might be seen as laudable, but we need to understand that such a change may be difficult, if not impossible.

Instead of becoming frustrated and angry at the hopelessness of effecting changes to the entrenched beliefs of our politicians, calm acceptance of the nature of entrenched beliefs, and unruffled tolerance of those who hold them, may be a healthier option for us as we attempt to maintain our mental equilibrium in today’s dizzying post-truth world of politics.

What do you think? Please let us have your opinion.

This article was originally published on The Political Sword.

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  1. Freethinker

    I agree 100% but that entrenched belief is not only limited to the politicians or people in power they are in all level of society, some for ignorance, some for greed or pure conservatism or fair of change, the unknown.
    When I was new in Australia and come with propositions to new maintenance management of machinery in the metal industry I was shocked for the attitude of people at all levels saying: “for the “x”years we will have been doing this like this and we cannot see any reason to change”
    It was so frustrating………..

  2. John

    Mladic has been exonerated of the genocide charge and the Tribunal, which did not charge any NATO officials, is widely reharded as a poltical exercise by Serbs.

    “Eleven years after his death, a second trial chamber at the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague has concluded that Slobodan Milosevic was not responsible for war crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
    This is an important admission because practically the entire Western press corps and virtually every political leader in every Western country has spent the last 25 years telling us that Slobodan Milosevic was a genocidal monster cut from the same cloth as Adolf Hitler. We were told that he was the “Butcher of the Balkans,” but there was never any evidence to support those accusations. We were lied to in order to justify economic sanctions and NATO military aggression against the people of Serbia – just like they lied to us to justify the Iraq war.
    The Tribunal has done nothing to publicize these findings despite the fact that Slobodan Milosevic was accused of 66 counts of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the Tribunal.
    The [first] trial was a public relations disaster for the Tribunal. Midway through the Prosecution’s case, the London Times published an article smearing Slobodan Milosevic’s wife and lamenting the fact that “One of the ironies of Slobodan’s trial is that it has bolstered his popularity. Hours of airtime, courtesy of the televised trial, have made many Serbs fall in love with him again.”[9]
    While the trial enhanced Milosevic’s favorability, it destroyed the Tribunal’s credibility with the Serbian public. The Serbian public had been watching the trial on television, and when the Serbian Human Rights Ministry conducted a public opinion poll three years into the trial it found that “three quarters of Serbian citizens believe that The Hague Tribunal is a political rather than a legal institution.”
    The Serbian people endured years of economic sanctions and a NATO bombing campaign against their country because of the unfounded allegations against their president.

    Hague Tribunal Exonerates Slobodan Milosevic Again

    “In a rare conviction by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Ratko Mladic has been sentenced to life imprisonment for alleged war crimes.
    Mladic’s exoneration on genocide charges is also further confirmation of what many academics and international criminal lawyers (including Ed Herman, David Peterson, Michael Parenti, Robin Philpot, John Philpot, Christopher Black, Peter Erlinder, Ramsey Clark, and Diana Johnstone) have long-claimed — claims about ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav wars, and casualty figures in events such as the Srebrenica massacre, are highly questionable.
    “What happened was not a genocide. There was a massacre of prisoners, whose proportions are disputed. That was a war crime. But it was not genocide. When your victims are military age men and you spare women and children, that cannot be genocide by any sensible definition,” Johnstone said in a 2015 interview with Counterpunch.The absence of NATO figures from the lineup underlines the politicized nature of the prosecutions, as the military alliance has been accused of committing war crimes in the region throughout its campaign against the fallen country, most notably in Kosovo. Amnesty International notes there were many violations of the laws of war during the bloc’s 74-day bombing campaign in 1999, with hundreds of civilian casualties (at least 30 percent of which were children) and the targeted destruction of civilian objects, including the bombing of Serbian radio and television headquarters in Belgrade.
    Moreover, in addition to the use of cluster bombs, the alliance effectively waged a “low-intensity nuclear war” using toxic radioactive shells and missiles containing depleted uranium, contaminating the environment and food chain. This toxic destruction was compounded the Alliance also bombing Yugoslavia’s major chemical and pharmaceutical plant, which released dangerous, highly toxic fumes.

  3. Miriam English

    My way of seeing it is slightly different and more optimistic. Once upon a time spin was accepted as normal or even necessary; now people are disgusted by politicians weaseling out of the truth. This is a good thing. We are becoming less tolerant of lies.

    I don’t think things are getting worse, just that we are noticing the appalling state of some things rather than living in a fool’s paradise. This makes it look like things are worse because we notice them. I think that things are, generally speaking, improving. But improvement is not smooth. Just as climate is inexorably getting hotter, yet we still have occasionally bitterly cold days, we have general improvement of morality but occasionally get a Tony Abbott.

    Some time back Cory Bernardi would have been seen as a moral and upstanding person. Some still see him as such, but the drift toward a smarter population has made him look like a dangerously retarded religious extremist.

  4. Freethinker

    Miriam, the support for One Nation in Australia, Trump in USA, the extreme right in Austria, in Hungary, in Argentina, etc does not look very positive IMO.
    I hope that you are right.

  5. Miriam English

    Entrenched belief is going to stay a problem for some time to come. I hope not too long — we have some serious growing up to do as a species, and time is pressing. But at some point in the near future I think we will get past this idiotic need to cling to our mistakes.

    Personally, I think the change will be accelerated by our embrace of artificial intelligence (AI). We already have it helping us in our desktop computers, tablet computers, and smartphones. AI is very quickly becoming much smarter. It has already begun to change the way we think. Soon it will make it almost impossible for people to hold views that contradict reality. This will be a Very Good Thing.

  6. Miriam English

    Freethinker, I don’t like it either, but I think it’s part of the noise. Things will resume their trend, improving morality and intelligence. At least I hope so. There’s fairly good evidence that it’s what’s happening.

  7. John Boyd

    ‘To counter his disruptive intentions, Phillip Ruddoch has been tasked to lead a review into legal protections for religious freedom in Australia as an exercise separate from the marriage equality issue…’. Was it really to counter these intentions, or is it just to placate Bernadi and co, and to give them a platform to really distort the issue of religious freedom?

  8. Phil

    Ad Astra – I found so much that resonated with my thoughts in your article, but what left me perplexed was your suggestion that in response to entrenched beliefs we might adopt “..calm acceptance of the nature of entrenched beliefs, and unruffled tolerance of those who hold them, may be a healthier option for us”

    So many of those holding entrenched beliefs are in positions of political power – they write the rules – they implement the rules that determine our daily lives and our future. Be damned if I am going to calmly accept their madness with unruffled tolerance. They can’t be changed in their views and this I can accept, but that means they have to be removed from power – they are dangerous – their entrenched beliefs are causing us misery and I do not accept that they should be tolerated – not for one minute.

    They must be removed from positions of power.

  9. Robert REYNOLDS

    The concepts that underpin this article are really quite profound. If I had studied philosophy I would feel more qualified to make a considered response. However, my background is in the physical sciences, an area that is, thankfully, not entirely unrelated to the subject.

    Before writing this response I felt compelled to check up on the definition of “belief”. The noun belief, inter alia, means,
    1 (a) “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.”
    (b) “something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion.”
    (c) “a religious conviction.”
    2 “trust, faith, or confidence in (someone or something).”

    As an atheist, religious belief is something that, to me, is completely beyond comprehension. The only way that I can understand religious belief is by acknowledging that deeply religious parents brainwash and indoctrinate their children virtually from the time they are in the womb with religion. If a child grows up in an orthodox community where this is usual then why should we be surprised that it is commonplace.

    These religious beliefs are ‘reality’ for these people. In deeply religious communities these superstitions and delusions are further reinforced not only in the school system but in every aspect of society. In this sense the world still very much influenced by large pockets of Dark Age thinking. Worryingly, there is still enough of this thinking still around in the world that, if it is allowed to gain a ‘critical mass’ could return us to another ‘Dark Age’.

    Sometimes people who have experienced a tragic personal trauma will, as a way of coping, embrace religion. Purveyors of religious belief will be only too willing to ensnare the vulnerable into their fold.

    As I have said on other occasions, the best antidote to the poison/disease of religious belief is a fair and egalitarian society in which people are treated equally, there are jobs for all, and with good quality health care, education and housing, freely available. Only as a very last resort should there be conflict between the believers and non-believers.

    The religious believers have convinced me that God does exist! Yes, this ‘God’ fantasy exists in the imagination of the believer. If this was not called ‘religion’ then the person claiming this belief would most likely be admitted to a mental health facility.

    Now, ‘belief’ as it relates to politics and economics. Why is it that some people look to free-market neo-liberalism to solve society’s problems at one end of the spectrum, while at the other, we have democratic socialism? Of course there are many more possibilities as well.

    Self-interest and greed cannot be overlooked here as determinants of ‘belief’. It is to be expected that in a free-market capitalist society people will naturally rationalize their greed as being a normal trait.

    People will always behave in ways that are not always rational, to me anyway. For instance, why would poor Americans vote for a President who will obviously make them even poorer?

    The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has written in the New York Times articles describing how some poor Americans who rely on social service payments abuse and criticize the American welfare system (or what passes for a welfare system in that country) and these people also support politicians who will reduce or remove that support for welfare recipients.

    I would content that the capitalist system is not a system that is often not really interested in establishing ‘facts’ unless someone can make a profit from that act.

    After reading through Colin Wright’s essay in The Conversation I feel that some points could be made in response to that.

    Firstly, terms such as “post-truth” and “post-modernism” are nothing more than ‘fashionable trendoid talk’. I really pay little attention to these terms which are virtually meaningless to me.

    Secondly, in relation to facts, I only rely on my scientific training which has taught me that nothing is ever proven in science (with the exception of mathematical proofs). We gather evidence from empirical observation or experiment, which may disprove a hypothesis or theory. Alternatively, the evidence gained in that way, may further support the hypothesis or theory, or perhaps may require some modification of the hypothesis or theory. But a hypothesis, theory or even a law, is never ‘proven’. Fortunately in science, there is less scope for value judgements to be made.

    Thirdly, Colin Wright says,

    “The more educated societies have become, the more dysfunctional democracy seems to be. The supposed positive link between democracy, education and knowledge appears to be broken.”

    I have no proof that this is really the case however empirical observation would suggest that it is not without some foundation. I would content that the link between democracy, education and knowledge has been heavily poisoned by economic rationalism. This toxic form of economic fundamentalism corrupts everything that it comes into contact with. The surprising thing would be if links between democracy, education and knowledge were not corrupted under this economic system.

    Fourthly, Colin Wright clearly laments the fact that our universities are not playing an adequate role in producing and protecting knowledge. He asks (one hopes not rhetorically) “what can we do about it?” But what does Wright expect when universities are now run as corporate bodies with of course, their ‘managers’ and ‘business models’. Truth and knowledge clearly play a subordinate role to profits these days everywhere and yes, that includes universities (and while we are at it, let’s not forget hospitals) too.

    Anyway, in conclusion, this very valuable article is a reminder to us all not to fall into the trap of thinking that we have some kind of monopoly on truth and knowledge and that our ‘beliefs’ are ‘facts’ that are set in stone. Hubris is a trap that any of us can fall into if we are not careful.

    We all need to listen to those who hold different views. I always content that what convinces me of the absurdity of religious belief is not attending an atheists conference or reading Richard Dawkins’s book ‘The God Delusion’, it is talking to a religious believer. Similarly, what convinces me that socialism is the best way forward for the human race is observing how capitalism works, not to mention listening to the likes of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

  10. Matters Not

    Seems to me that it’s impossible to approach the world free of mental constructs whether those mental constructs be called theories, world views, entrenched beliefs or whatever label (word) one chooses to give. We are always burdened or enlightened (or not) by a set of a priori assumptions which may or may not be consciously held.

    The widely held belief that scientific theories result from atheoretical observations of the world is laughable. How is it possible to observe (or count) red objects without having a theory of redness? yes I know – that’s easy. ‘Redness’ is just a matter of ‘common sense’. But what about the counting of objects coloured Cinereous? Or Coquelicot? Surely no-one would argue that the counting of same is atheoretical.

    Nope theory (however described) is always a priori fact and thus theory is always a priori … to the attribution of meaning to any facts.

    But for the vast majority of the populace – it matters not.

  11. Wam

    What you are taught to believe is truth and stays as truth until evidence changes your belief. Religion has a basic premise of the existance of a god. The existance of god cannot be proven or disproven. The trappings of god as social controls by men contrived religions are protected from challenge by the power of faith and the consequences of ‘straying’ from the path. But these may be challenged should the religions allow women access to the ‘back room’.
    I put the rabbott at the extreme of ‘truth’. I have no problem with the thought that he would not read anything that may challenge his truth. So science reports and philosophy are the province of his minders who read the articles filter out any material that is risky they then either rewrite or tell the rabbott any info needed.
    There is not such protection for democracy?

    What a shame, robert reynolds, that as an atheist you have a problem with how the earth began. God made it is the answer for people who can think but have not seen a mobius strip.

  12. Robert REYNOLDS

    Contrary to your belief Wam I have no problem whatsoever with how the Earth began. I am not entirely sure about its origins but I know one thing for sure Wam and that is, it had absolutely NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with divine intervention.

    I was briefly exposed to Möbius strips during my studies. I have had mentally deranged individuals trying to tell me about their religious delusions all my life. I know which one I take seriously.

  13. Miriam English

    Matters Not, a person’s values on whether they should want to approach closer to reality using science and engineering and logic, or whether they would want to ignore reality and believe in patently false things — those values can be argued. But whether there are genuine facts can’t be argued. We have systematic ways to gain ever more accurate understanding of the real world — the actual facts. The modern world surrounds you with proof of that countless times over.

    wam, truth is not generated by belief. Believing in a lie does not turn the lie into truth. The existence of some god can be easily proved — he merely needs to make a verifiable appearance, preferably performing a few miracles. It is trivial to disprove the gods of all religions. But might some god exist that has nothing to do with any religions? It’s exceedingly unlikely to exist, but that can’t be disproved. However such a god exists is utterly irrelevant. Only the gods of religion affect usand they’re false.

  14. Jack Russell

    Belief is a useful item in the amoral predatory toolkit. However, as an artificial construct, its “fit for purpose” attributes exist on very shaky ground. In hard-wired evolutionary terms, Homosapiens will move forward and leave it behind.

  15. Zoltan Balint

    Religion is a construct to explain what has NOT been backed up by facts. Religion and God was introduced as a common value for a society to exist in harmony and have a common explanation for things that could not be explained. A few hundred years ago finding a fossil was explained as something God has placed for us to find. But you have to listen to the people that do not believe in any new explanation or scientific evidence so you can test the explanation, and with another but you do not have to throw away the new explanation until it is proven wrong. God is not a good explanation and religious beliefs should be recognised as only serving as a binding common value system keeping a society together.

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