Agnotology and Santa Claus
For students of agnotology there is no more striking finding than the observation that many people, presented with evidence that undermines a strongly held belief, react as if that belief had been confirmed. This seems to undermine any possibility that evidence will ever settle political disputes. And yet, evidence does seem to seep through in the end. Although belief in Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction persisted long after the absence of evidence had turned into clear evidence of absence, it faded away in the end (not that it has completely disappeared even now).
As a slightly more optimistic take on the experimental evidence, I offer the example of Santa Claus. Young children, presented with the suggestion that Santa isn’t real, blithely ignore it. Slightly older children, though, react in exactly the manner of the experimental subjects, reaffirming their belief in the Santa story and (of course) the associated presents. Later, of course, they accept the truth.
In some social contexts children are likely draw the obvious analogy between Santa and God, while in other contexts, the distinction between the two beliefs is maintained successfully. But regardless of context, there is an obvious risk, for those who would like their children to grow up as theists, in insisting too hard on the reality of Santa.
Similarly, I suspect that the apparent success of Republicans in believing six impossible things before breakfast, and in taking up new delusions as old ones are abandoned, may mask an underlying erosion of faith. Birtherism may morph into torturism without any obvious sign of stress, but at some level people must gradually become aware that their political beliefs are more like the faith that belief in Santa will bring presents and less like the belief that kicking a rock will give you a stubbed toe.
fn1. The general phenonomen of confirmation bias (paying attention to evidence that supports your belief and disregarding contradictory evidence) is well established. The first finding of reinforcement Nyhan and Riefler find that Democrats ignore contradictory evidence, while Republicans respond in the way I described.
I can’t find the study that supported this. Nyhan and Riefler cite earlier research by Redlawski that I haven’t been able to find.