Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Water-tight compartments in the brain

Today's topic is compartmentalization, a psychological phenomenon that is defined thus:
Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person's having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

Compartmentalization allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self states.  [Source]
While I'm sure that we all engage in this defense mechanism to one extent or another, in more extreme cases it does result in stances that (from the outside) look completely ludicrous.  It explains, for example, two of my former students, both brilliantly successful in my AP Biology class, both of whom were Young-Earth Creationists.  One of them, when I asked how she could accept the rest of science and reject evolutionary biology, answered -- without any apparent rancor -- that the rest of science was just fine, and she believed it to be true, but when science and Christianity conflict then the science has to be wrong, because she knew that the bible is true.  The other student seemed more conflicted about the whole thing, but ended up with basically the same solution.

One of these students, by the way, is now a medical doctor, and the other an environmental lawyer.

The whole subject of compartmentalization is on my mind today because of something that President Obama said this week with regard to climate change.  In a speech given at Georgetown University (excerpted and reviewed here), Obama stated that the United States needs to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to manage anthropogenic climate change, and outlined steps that he believes would accomplish what needs to be done.  About climate change deniers, he had the following to say: "I am willing to work with anybody…to combat this threat on behalf of our kids.  But I don't have much patience for anybody who argues the problem is not real.  We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat-Earth Society.  Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm."

Which is a pretty good line... but, unfortunately, generated a response from the Daniel Shenton, president of the Flat-Earth Society, who said that actually, he believes in anthropogenic climate change.

"I accept that climate change is a process which has been ongoing since beginning of detectable history, but there seems to be a definite correlation between the recent increase in world-wide temperatures and man’s entry into the industrial age," Shenton said, in an email to Salon.  "If it’s a coincidence, it’s quite a remarkable one. We may have experienced a temperature increase even without our use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, but I doubt it would be as dramatic as what we’re seeing now."

To which I can only respond: but you think the Earth is flat?  What the hell?

I mean, I've seen compartmentalized brains before, but Shenton may win the prize.

Not only does Shenton believe that the Earth is flat, but he believes that:
1)  Photographs from satellites are "digitally manipulated."  Why scientists are so desperate to convince people that the Earth is a sphere isn't certain, but they sure seem determined.  They're an evil bunch, those scientists.

2) The view of the Earth from space by the astronauts is explained by the fact that the space program is a lie, neatly tying up this nonsense with the Moon-landing-is-faked conspiracy theory nonsense.

3)  The seasons are caused because the Sun moves in circles over the North Pole (the center of the disk) and "shines down like a spotlight."  (Hey, don't yell at me.  I don't believe this stuff, I'm just telling you about it.)

4)  The Earth's gravity is created because the flat disk of the Earth is accelerating upwards at 9.8 m/s^2.  This acceleration, while it would create an apparent gravitational pull (consistent with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity), has as its cause a mysterious "aetheric wind."  Put a different way, they are making shit up.

Oh, but the rest of science is just fine, and we have no problem with accepting anthropogenic climate change.

I wish I was joking, here.  But these people, hard though this may be to believe, are completely serious.

The problem is, once you have your brain this compartmentalized, you become impossible to argue with.  Just like my long-ago student, anything that brings up an internal contradiction or logical flaw is immediately dismissed as simply wrong.  It's like the old joke, strikingly relevant here, about the man who thought that the Earth was a flat disk resting on the back of a giant turtle.

"What is the turtle standing on?" asked a friend.

"Another turtle," the man said.

"But what is that turtle standing on?" the friend persisted.

The man smiled.  "You can't catch me that way," he said.  "It's turtles all the way down."

I live in hope that one day, the water-tight compartments will begin to leak -- and that the resulting cognitive dissonance will require these folks to reevaluate their position.  But unfortunately, rationalism doesn't always win -- not with evolution, not with climate change, and not even with the Earth being an oblate spheroid.


  1. Interesting post, but how about the cognitive dissonance of an Obama energy plan that acknowledges climate change then puts most of the money into natural gas drilling, proven to release more methane than fossil fuels? To me, that's the most disappointing.

  2. I used to open my Philosophy class with an article about The Flat Earth Society from Saturday Review magazine (remember them?). The president of the society at that time drove on the point that unquestioning belief in the most generally accepted truths of an age was dangerous, and encouraged questioning the axioms. Although he was persistent and detailed in his statements (he had once crawled to the edge of the world and stared over the edge into the abyss, which is somewhere off Newfoundland), I didn't come out of the column believing he was serious about anything but a metaphor.
    Haven't thought of them in quite a while . . .

  3. Not quite sure I get the gravity part of the explanation. The Earth could only continue to accelerate until it was going the same speed as the "wind". So the "wind" would have to be accelerating as well, or gravity would quickly drop off to zero.

    I try to keep in mind that people are diverse and have very different standards of evidence. But I still have to doubt that anyone sincerely believes this when they can easily disprove it by, say, subscribing to Direct TV. Unless they have a theory to explain why a geosynchronous satellite wouldn't simply crash to the ground as the accelerating Earth caught up to it. Perhaps the communications companies put them up on long, long poles?

    Never mind. I don't even want to know what they suggest the orbital mechanics of these satellites, whose pictures are doctored, are.

    There may be one or two crazies who are sincerely convinced, because in terms of what people will believe, literally anything is possible. But I have to think that most of them just enjoy being contrarian.