Monday, July 6, 2009

Creationist Museum as a Test Case

My buddy Aaron posted a recent blog entry on Anecdotal Evidence connected to John Scalzi's Whatever blog entry about going to the Creationist museum.

It's an entertaining piece if, like me, you think hardcore Creationism is a steaming pile of crap.

Scalzi's essay/rant also struck me as a good example of the appeal of what Farhad Manjoo called "weak dissonance" in his recent book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

Basically, a number of studies conducted over the past forty years have indicated that if you have a strongly held set of beliefs on any given topic, you can encounter one of four broad sets of ideas related to that topic:
  • "strong consonance" represents well-argued and believable ideas that support your own beliefs.
  • "weak consonance" represents poorly argued, unconvincing ideas that support your own beliefs.
  • "strong dissonance" represents well-argued and believable ideas that are contrary to your own beliefs.
  • "weak dissonance" represents poorly argued, unconvincing ideas that are contrary to your own beliefs.
Now, you'd expect people to be interested in consuming strong consonance ideas, because it reinforces their existing world-views in a reassuring and convincing way. And it turns out that for both liberals and conservatives, that is the case.

And nobody really likes to seek out strong dissonance ideas, because it shakes them up. Here there's a significant divide between liberals, who show at least some willingness to glance at such ideas, and conservatives, who simply act as though such ideas don't exist.

But what's interesting is that the set of ideas that most people are most likely to embrace right after strong consonance ideas are weak dissonance ideas. Apparently everybody loves to beat up a straw man argument. This is how Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly make a living--selecting the weakest link and attacking it. And it seems to me to be just what Scalzi is doing in his piece--going after a really, really stupid set of ideas that are inherently self-contradictory.

Now, it's partly my own liberal bias that I enjoyed Scalzi and hate Limbaugh. To be fair, in the case of the Creationism Museum, when somebody goes to that sort of trouble and expense to present their half-baked ideas to the world with pride and determination, it seems to me that they are basically asking for a rhetorical ass-whipping. Scalzi does this with competent glee. In the case of people like Limbaugh, I don't even think that he's very good at making the points he wants to make. So's he just plain irritating.

I suspect that this weak dissonance model isn't that far off from how predators cull the herd; they go after the weakest members. To stretch the analogy, they go after either the oldest ideas that are showing a lack of vigor in the contemporary environment, or they go after the newest ideas that haven't had time to learn how to defend themselves from attackers.

This does make me wonder, as Scalzi does, who exactly is going to the Creationism Museum. Are they conservative True Believers, or are they merely conservatives willing to shell out the money to experience some weak consonance (as studies indicate conservatives are more likely to do than liberals). The theories would seem to suggest that there would be just as many, if not more, liberals attending the Museum to experience weak dissonance as there would be moderate conservatives going to experience weak consonance. So I think polling the demographics of the Museum's attendance over a period of time would be an interesting case study for these theories about how people choose to expose themselves to ideas in the world around them.

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