What science can learn from Imran Khan’s US visit?

One of the things I feel least interested in, is politics. But of late, I have been watching politics related news on channels and YouTube videos so much that my wife was worried whether her crazy hubby had any thoughts of joining politics. The reason I am watching them is because I am a student of behaviour and I always have a child like curiosity about why people behave the way they do. Whatever I do, ultimately relates to science in some form or the other.

Look at the media coverage of the US visit of Pakistan’s prime-minister Imran Khan. After landing up the in US, he travelled in metro and stayed in Pakistan embassy instead of a hotel. There is one sect of news channels and media that are interested in projecting this as an insult to Imran and to pakistan. They say this reflects the begging bowl state of the country. Diametrically opposite are the titles of the obviously pro-Imran Khan media that are projecting it as a noble austerity act of him in the light of the economic situation of his country. Imran Khan’s Jalsa is similarly portrayed in two diametrically opposite ways; some videos focussing on the 30,000 crowd of Pakistani Americans gathered and others focus on the Baloch slogans being shouted somewhere in the crowd. Everyone makes a highly selective story to highlight one side of the picture. This is certainly amazing, though not very surprising. It is a typical evolved trait of human behaviour. The human mind is not evolved for reasoning and judging. It is evolved for taking sides. After having taken sides we gather news, facts, evidence and logic selectively to support our side. We do not take rational decisions, we rationalize our decisions after they are taken. We do not make judgments based on perceivable facts. We perceive facts according to the “judgements” that we have already committed to.

This is not new to science. The journal Behavioural and Brain Sciences (BBS) has accepted for publication a paper by Fiery Cushman of Harvard University. It will soon come in print. The title of the paper is “Rationalization is rational”. It is known for quite some time and demonstrated with many interesting experiments that humans do not take decisions by rational thinking. They shape their thinking in order to justify their already taken decision. In soft rationalization the human mind is only seeking socially acceptable justifications for their decisions or acts. In hard rationalization we actually make ourselves believe that the stories concocted for justifying our act are true. Our acts often shape our beliefs although most people typically like to believe in the upside down view. The main role of conscious thinking in human life is to find justifications of our already performed acts that most others will find acceptable.

Cushman in the BBS article takes a right stand that it is not sufficient to describe the phenomenon of rationalization. We need to wonder why and how it evolved. He raises the right question but his attempt to explain the evolutionary origin is quite primitive and fails to capture the complexity of selection for rationalization. His evolutionary justification is that rationalization evolved for “transferring information between the different kinds of processes and representations that influence our behaviour”. We need to look beyond that. The human species evolved as social species and we do almost everything that we do in the context of others. The context of the group almost never vanishes.

When two individuals fight, the fights quickly transform themselves in group fights, because people take sides. (There are some fence sitters, and the advantages of side taking versus fence sitting are negatively frequency dependent, but that apart). Whose side one takes depends upon so many factors, but you first take a side and then justify. Whose side you take depends upon kinship, reciprocity, green beard effects, perceived individual benefits from specific persons and groups. The justification is adaptive because you need to recruit more people on your side, for which you need to concoct reasons which are acceptable to them rather than which are “true”. The number certainly matters in a group combat. So better your skills of rationalization, more likely you are to win the fight. So there is a strong selection on the ability to concoct convincing reasons.

Your ability to make others believe can be better if you yourself believe in it. Moreover altering one’s own beliefs makes positive feedback loops that ultimately build a personality. Taking one decision changes your personality in such a way that you are more likely to take a similar decision again. Stabilizing personality by positive feedbacks is important because the body physiology is fine tuned to the personality. So manipulating your own beliefs is the first step in convincing and recruiting others on your side on the one hand and stabilizing your own personality and physiology on the other. Others will join you based on their own cost-benefit calculations, but they also quickly start believing that they are on your side because it is “true”. So everyone except truth believes to be on the side of truth. This process is an important component of multilevel selection.

Evolved psychological mechanisms would favour what is good for an individual, which need not be good for the group. Inevitable conflicts between individual benefit and group benefit can lead to multiple conflicts and such conflicts can be dampened, at least at the perceptional level by rationalizing. Multi-level selection has certainly played a significant role in human biological and cultural evolution, and by altering conflicts between levels, rationalization can change the nature of multilevel selection. Thus not only selection has shaped rationalization, rationalization has shaped selection acting on the human society. 

This may not mean that an impartial and unprejudiced search for truth is impossible, it can be certainly said to be difficult thought. This is important for science, which is a quest for “truth” in a practical sense. Let us not bring in here the philosophical meaning of truth and whether it can really be perceived. For the time being truth is a model that is fairly realistic so that you can use it to make the system sufficiently predictable and comprehensible. It is about being able to solve a problem, such as effectively prevent or cure a disease. However, pursuit of a practical truth does not happen naturally. Researchers are humans and their natural tendency is not to go by reason but as far as possible take a side in a debate and selectively look for evidence, reason and justifications to support one’s side in the debate.

This is beautifully illustrated by a paper by Trinquart et al in 2016, in which they show the current status of the salt and hypertension controversy. There are clearly two sides in the debate and majority of researchers take either this or that side. Researchers who believe salt causes hypertension and salt restriction can cure it, selectively cite references favourable to them. The other side which believes salt intake has nothing to do with hypertension and its ill-effects also do cherry picking and only cite papers from their group. Nobody seems to have an interest in finding the truth; they only want support for their side.

So researchers are no better than most media covering political news. Scientists are not rational by nature. They are primarily side takers, not impartial judges. It takes substantial efforts to be impartial and only a minority can perhaps achieve it. But is this a pessimistic note? Does it mean one can’t do an unbiased scientific pursuit of a question? On the contrary, if you know how human nature evolved, if you know the strengths as well as weaknesses of the only tool you have, that is your mind, you can utilize it in a better way. If you hold on to the false assumption that you are rational by nature, you will almost certainly be misled. If you know that you are born as a side taker and need efforts to rise above biases and prejudices, you are more likely to take those efforts. Science is not only about theorems, proofs, experiments, evidence and laws, it is about human behaviour and one cannot understand how science works without understanding human behaviour.

References:

Cushman, Fiery (2019) Rationalization is rational. Behav Brain Sci, in press

Trinquart L., Johns D. M. and Galea S. (2016) Why do we think we know what we know? A meta-knowledge analysis of the salt controversy. Int. J. Epidemiol. 45, 251–260.

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