Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Sometimes the brain makes connections between things that are seemingly unconnected or only distantly or abstractly related. Recently, a series of oddly related events came together for me in a way that I wanted to share.

First, I came across a comment in another forum last week that mentioned a model known as Morton’s Demon. I hadn’t heard of this before, but it is apparently a metaphorical representation of how people maintain beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. The Demon sits at the gateway of the mind and allows only that data to pass that supports currently held beliefs and values, while barring any information that conflicts. I suppose to some degree anyone is susceptible, but, I think it’s fair to say, some more than others.

Next, a few days ago, I called someone I know, but the call was intercepted by a third party, and a conversation began. During this conversation, the topic of Arctic oil drilling was briefly broached. Just to note, I did not raise the issue, and I’m extremely ill informed on the topic. However, the “logic” presented by this person was, let’s say, unusual, and went something like this: The oil platforms in the Gulf withstood Katrina, therefore it is unreasonable to worry about potential problems drilling in the Arctic.

Without thinking, my first response was, “Have you ever seen an oil spill?” The answer was, “Yes, from a ship, but not from a platform.” My next natural question was, “How are they planning to move this oil?” Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if the intent is to use pipelines or ships, I was simply asking, aloud, the first questions that came to mind. The topic switched quickly, and I didn’t pursue it.

Finally, also a few days ago, I was excited to see not one, but two small owls hanging around in my backyard. Being ignorant regarding owls, I decided to research online to determine the species. I was having no luck, when someone suggested I check the Audubon Web site.

At the site, there was a link to an article about the potential impact of oil excavation in the Arctic . At any other time, I might have skipped right over it, but after my recent phone conversation, I decided to give it a read. My reaction to the article was that although its claims seemed reasonable, I would have liked to have seen some references and citations to support the claims and statistics put forward.

The article basically claims that there are engineering challenges that are presented by this region that are not presented in other regions we have so far excavated for oil. I would say that the Arctic presents a very different environment, in many regards, than, for example, the Gulf area; and it seems at least reasonable to accept that materials and processes could react differently in that far colder climate. The article also claimed that seismic exploration would be used, and that this could have a negative impact on species of whales known to use local waterways. That whales are using the area appears to be causing the local Indians some concern, because they still hunt some whale species to survive—again, according to the article. And finally, as this location becomes commercial, the article notes that increased shipping traffic can be anticipated; which is also a concern—and that makes sense to me, because I’ve seen the impact of recreational boating and commercial shipping on waterways, having lived in Florida, Pittsburgh, and Austin.

So, deciding that the article was rational, if not supported by citations, I forwarded the link to my pal and asked in my subject line, “I wonder what Audubon has to gain from lying like this?” I added no further content. I received a short reply later that same day, presented here in its brief entirety:

“I don't know why they do stuff like this. Look around you and you will see oil rigs pumping all over the place and cattle grazing right next to them. Also the area is not as big as PA. It is really a small area and it so happens in that particular area there are very few Polar Bears. I hesitate to get into this because the media is so liberal and it seems to me the Democrats of which I use to be one, want to ruin our country stopping us from doing anything and everything that would make things better and easier for us all. No matter how good of an idea someone comes up with, if it didn’t come from an Democrat they will vote against it.”

When I examined this, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It appeared that he was initially reasoning that since cattle exist well enough in prairie oil fields, that I should extrapolate Arctic wildlife would fare just as well (since domestic cattle and wild whales are nearly equivalent?)—and that, somehow, I should consider the two ecosystems are comparable, when clearly they are not when I “look around.”

The next assumption is that size dictates importance. True, when I “look around,” I sometimes see that small things are unimportant, but sometimes I see that they can be very important. There are some substances required by the human body, for example, without which it will cease to function normally (or at all)—even though they may be required in very small amounts. It is never safe to assume without knowledge that in any interdependent system, the mere size of a component dictates the overall importance of the component to the smooth operation of the system as a whole.

As far as polar bears being few in the region, again, I’m ignorant. But, if the animal is already struggling as a species, then “few” may be significant. I have no knowledge of how populous polar bears are in the areas considered for drilling, but one thought that pops into my head goes something like, “Why would the Audubon Society knowingly inflate polar bear population figures? How would they benefit by a public disinformation campaign?” Honestly, I don’t mean to imply there’s no one at Audubon who might benefit. But I can’t really miss the clear, immediate benefit to oil companies, and politicians supported by them, to be able to drill in previously restricted areas. I am, then, fully aware of a clear bias on one side of this issue, while I remain ignorant, but open to hearing more about what potential bias the other side might harbor.

To be fair, my friend appears to be trying to explain the Audubon Society’s bias—in an odd, convoluted way. It seems he reasons that media supports liberals, and I’m sure that he means that “Democrats” are “liberals,” but he provides no explanation about how the media actually benefits from lying. I can “look around” and see media’s advertising dollars pouring in, mainly from industries and corporations—so there’s hardly an obvious financial incentive for the media to promote articles that oppose oil drilling, while they support themselves with the money they generate annually from Chevron, Exxon, Shell, and Mobil. The “benefit,” I’m being told, is that they merely wish to be contrary to the Republicans, so much so that they would rather harm the nation (and their own revenues) than support a Republican idea that would actually benefit everyone. Why they hate Republicans and cater to Democrat liberals is sort of glossed over. But they are, according to this line of reason, willing to shoot themselves in the foot financially, and potentially harm themselves and the rest of us, purely for the sake of being disagreeable.

The Audubon Society, I take it, then, is not actually a group that supports conservation, but is, rather, a front for the liberal anti-Republican Democrat agenda. Likewise, the Inupiaq tribe actually knows the whales are in no danger. They simply like to disagree with Republicans, too. Have marine biologists, oceanographers, geologists, climatologists weighed in on this? If so, do those who land on the side of caution also wish only to destroy the planet for anti-Republican spite? What a poor, persecuted group the Republicans are—according to my friend. Very much like another group I frequently hear about that suffers from similar persecution.

So, my friend appears to believe that people in all areas of conservation and research who err on the side of caution in this debate, are only claiming to be concerned with conservation, but are actually just Democrat sympathizers who care nothing for the welfare of the planet and only want to be on the opposite side of absolutely anything U.S. Republicans endorse. A global conspiracy of Republican haters.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me just reiterate that this post is not intended as an analysis of the Arctic drilling situation. I’m ignorant. I’m not taking sides. I have not even attempted to take a position on the issue. I am, however, taking a position on the soundness of one citizen’s logic and argumentation in defense of the drilling. I do not presume that his argument represents the “best” argument offered; in fact, I think it’s only fair for me to assume it could not possibly be.

I’m merely pointing out that someone is seriously asking me to accept the position that it’s more reasonable to believe (a) large numbers of diverse groups falsely claim to care about the planet while they are actually lying for spite, even if it means harming themselves, other people or the environment, rather than (b) large corporations and the politicians they support are lying in order to gain gobs and gobs of money, even if it means harming themselves, other people or the environment. When I take my friend’s advice and “look around,” I can’t deny I’ve seen some individuals and, to some degree, small groups do “a,” however, I’ve seen “b” too many times to even begin to count.

I should also give a hat tip to the line, “…of which I use to be one.” How many times have any of us heard, “I used to be a nonbeliever…”, as though that argument is any more compelling to me as it would be to them if I were to say, “I used to be a Christian…” Has that line of idiocy ever altered anyone’s opinion about god?

And this is atheist-related how, exactly? Here’s where I’m back to synchronicity and Morton’s Demon. Compartmentalization is old hat in atheist discussions—the idea that people can reason perfectly well except with regard to one or two particular emotional issues. But here, I have an example of someone using Morton’s Demon in a political context. And he is, just to note, also a Christian. And, just to stir the pot a bit, I’ll go ahead and add that I also know this person denies we walked on the Moon, thinks Evolution doesn’t happen, and has some interesting opinions about 9-11. So, I’m surprised, and even a bit amazed, that his particular Demon is able to keep up with all the information he has to work to sort and divert. If ever I felt sympathy for a metaphorical figure, it is now, when the simple thought of all that labor literally fatigues me.

Here is where I am supposed to reveal the secret of how to effectively respond to Morton’s Demon. The truth is, though, I’ve got nothing. In order to know how to effectively counter him, I’d have to have some idea why he’s considered necessary by those who employ him. Maybe it’s like someone who suspects he has cancer refusing to visit a doctor because he doesn’t want to know? Can life and reality really be just a “cancer” to so many? From what I’ve seen, willful ignorance and self-deceit create a tangled web that must be intricately woven throughout all areas of our lives and minds. In the same way harm to a tiny ecological region might cause damaging ripples throughout an entire planetary system, so willful ignorance and self-deceit can ripple through entire worldviews—poisoning the mind and producing poorly informed behaviors that impact everyone and everything within reach.

I’m beginning to question what exactly “compartmentalization” is. Might it be confined to those who don’t take their religious beliefs too seriously? Is it that some are religious by rote, so that their beliefs don’t have to integrate, because they don’t actually hold them in the forefront (or, in some cases, even the remotest corners) of their minds? Is that “compartmentalization”? I am having trouble understanding how someone could believe—consciously and thoughtfully believe—many common religious doctrines without those beliefs requiring protection in other areas—most other areas—of their worldviews and minds. Can I hold to an unreasonable belief that informs all of my most basic human values and interpretations, and not also require protection from information in nearly every other area of my life? Is that realistic? Is it even possible?

I’m not sure anymore.


  1. Brilliant. Thank you for the excellent post!

  2. Great post, I am going to have to think about this one. Why do people often hold to beliefs and make decisions based on those beliefs even when those decisions hurt them in the end? Why do they make decisions against their own best interests? Quirk of the human brain I think.

  3. WWJD - Where Would Jesus Drill?

  4. I think the problem is that we lie to ourselves all the time; we have to in order to live out lives. How many sports fans really believe that their team is the best or how many parents really believe their little Mary is cuter than other kids?

    In some ways it is what makes us human and stops us going insane. How often have you bought something and seen it cheaper next week or a better model comes out shortly after? Time after time we will find some way to justify our purchase in order to nullify any negative feelings. Studies show this quite clearly.

    Most of the time this cognitive dissonance is fairly harmless, many of the choices we make do not result in immediate or large scale repercussions so we can use a short term gain or exagerate a small gain as a justification. I'm happy to laud my sports team as the best the world has ever seen so I can enjoy the game and celebrate a win but in a rational conversation I'd be forced to accept that they have not won a trophy in 50 years. Could I have bought a better/cheaper car? Most likely yes but it was colour I wanted and available immediately. In both cases I over-ride a more objective rational conclusion in order to live and function.

    The problem, I think, arises when we use the same mechanism to justify larger issues and then fail to recognise it. Just as a religious believer has to make all sorts of justifications and obfuscations for her beliefs - to fail to do so would result in the world crashing around them - so to do more extreme political believers of any persuassion risk having to accept more and more outlandish claims in order to justify their inital premises ("All Libs bad" in this case). Put this failure together with the power to act and you have a major problem.

    It take a certain maturity and courage to realise that you are now in a hole SO STOP DIGGING!

  5. "I am having trouble understanding how someone could believe—consciously and thoughtfully believe—many common religious doctrines without those beliefs requiring protection in other areas—most other areas—of their worldviews and minds. Can I ... ?"

    I'd say a lot of it has to do with which sources of information one exposes hirself to in the first place.

    Imagine a person whose data diet only consists of conservative blogs, 'reality' TV, Rush Limbaugh, baptist sermons, Fox News, and perhaps a couple of liberal friends who are too polite to press on subjects of disagreement.

    How hard does Morton's Demon have to work, now?

  6. Great dissection of their arguments. I recently concentrated on the arguments for offshore drilling. First, that the whole things is based on faith and then after dealing with criticism, realized there's quite a correlation between religiosity and reactions to offshore drilling.

    I can't help but see the latter in the examples you cite. Yes, you can call it compartmentalizing and yes, you can jokingly say there's a demon that only lets things that jibe with subscribed to beliefs through, but I'd say a lot of that comes from an unquestioning loyalty to authority since those beliefs are coming from assertions from Republican talking heads. Furthermore, the reasoning of blindly accepting a premise and then squeezing reality to reflect that premise, gosh, what does that sound like? Does religious belief lead to this kind of think or does this kind of thinking allow for religion to continue? I'm not sure, but there's a correlation there.

    I think it's important to see how religion may impact other things, especially something seemingly so far removed from it such as drilling for oil. These kinds of posts are very valuable. Great job!

  7. Sean:

    I almost get what you're saying. But even someone who says, "My team is THE BEST!" doesn't deny their win/loss stats. I'm not talking about subjective judgements, but about saying "X is the reason," when there's no support, or saying "X doesn't cause any harm," when it's clear I don't know (or I'm denying data that is available to me). There's a difference between a subjective bias about a subjective judgement, and a subjective bias that results in denial of an objective reality.

    Ouini makes a good point. Morton's Demon is sort of helped along. And on that level I would say it's true that most people I know are guilty of this much. Most people I know with more liberal perspectives are more inclined to watch Colbert or John Stewart. Our friends often reflect our personal interests and ideologies. To what degree we are OK absorbing contrary data or even seeking it out is flexible, though. The danger is in accepting a conclusion before examining the data. On another blog, I replied to a post where someone wrote that there is ample evidence to believe in god for anyone who wants to believe (put forward with a theist thrust). I retorted that there is ample evidence for any woo-woo idea if I "want" to believe it before I look at the data. The problem is that I'm already on the side of error if I "want to believe" anything, before I examine the data.

    Philly: "Does religious belief lead to this kind of think or does this kind of thinking allow for religion to continue?"

    What an excellent question, and something I have no answer for. My general thought is that there is such a mix of both that it's probably impossible to pin it on one or the other. Like "does life imitate art or does art imitate life?" Sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes art imitates life. It's not an either or.

    I feel like I'm a living example of religion impeding critical thought in a person. I would say I wasn't really able to critically think until somewhere around my late 20s, early 30s, and I attribute my difficulty in doing it to my upbringing that was, to a large degree, influenced by fundamentalist religious thought.

    I don't doubt that religion can create people who think this way.

    But there are other things that create this attitude, and I'm not sure to what degree religion becomes attractive to them _because_ it caters to this type of mindset...?

  8. Just to clarify, there is a huge difference between saying "My team is the best!" because of my affinity for them. And saying it is based on stats, when clearly that stats do not support the claim. It is true my team is "the best" _to me_, and that can be based on something as slight as the fact they represent my hometown. That's a value judgment that is not based on data, nor does it need to be.

    But when I say, "an oil platform in the Arctic is no different than on in the middle of Texas!" That's just so convoluted that I have trouble believing that the person putting it forward doesn't _see_ the error in that reasoning. If he wants to say, "I'm not convinced the drilling will cause harm," that's a fair statement about his level of confidence in the claim "this drilling will cause harm." But to provide data or an arugment that defies any sort of real sense(?) or valid support--I wasn't kidding that I didn't really know what to think of it.

    It would be like saying, "My favorite football team is the best because the basketball team from that same town won the finals!"

    I don't even understand that statement. You know?

  9. I think it's largely symbiotic. Perhaps this kind of thinking opened the door for religion, but once in, religion has been not just keeping that door propped open, but attempting to blow out the whole wall.

  10. The psychological term for Morton's Demon is "confirmation bias." Basically, there have been studies that prove that once a person makes a decision or takes a side, their minds tune out evidence to the contrary. A GREAT book that explains this, the studies, and several other tricks of the mind (such as confirmation bias, racism, conspiracy theories) is "The Social Animal" by Eliot Aronson. It was used a textbook for a psych class that I took and I later repurchased it to read it on my own again.

  11. jdp:

    Thanks very much for the pointer. It sounds like an interesting read.

  12. It's so simple--Audubon and all of the other groups fronting for the enviro-islamo-atheo-abortiono-evolutiono-libero-fascist conspiracy to steal and corrupt our precious bodily fluids rely on donations in order to continue their anal probes on unsuspecting Midwesterners, and the best way to guarantee a steady stream of contributions is to tug at the heartstrings of good Christian folk (and don't forget, they also conspired to ram the 16th Amendment through the ratification process illegitimately, so that there would be a tax from which those contributions could be deducted!) Anyone with half a brain can see this as clearly as the love of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Herbert Christ!!!!!!!

    Now, then, for the sake of Poe's Law (and for all of you with whole brains), I present a sarcastic emoticon :p

    I'll also note that I'm too much of a perfectionist to add the rampant grammar errors and unnecessary CAPITALIZATION to make the above rant seem serious. Still, I've been hearing about "liberal conspiracies" my whole life. I actually have heard that environmental groups inflate numbers to garner more donations--and that may even be true, but it doesn't mean the environmental problem does not exist. My favorite was the argument that non-profits that accept donations from corporations are therefore beholden to those corporations, and thus cannot oppose those corporations' actions. Not sure I get that. If the corporations don't like it, they can just donate somewhere else (the Wise Use Movement?)

    Anyway, awesome post. I just felt like ranting.

    Oh, and uh, Jeebus luvs u <:)

  13. Tracie,

    Here is a link:

  14. Philly:

    Just to add I read both the articles you linked to. I loved them. Thanks!

  15. Thanks for the technical term jdp, but it doesn't seem to convey the magnitude of the problem. "Bias" seems too weak.

    And thank you, Tracieh

  16. Philly,

    I think you are right about confirmation bias being too weak a term to describe what is going on here. Hitler exploited confirmation bias by making sure that a great number of his underlings actually participated in harming jews, rather than simply having their consent. This bias is also what gives rise to dehumanizing terms for other races by veterans. When soldiers were sent to kill in Vietnam, they justified their actions by assuaging their cognitive dissonance with notions that the vietnamese were subhuman. In light of this, "bias" doesn't seem like a word that describes the danger of using such cognitive shortcuts.

  17. “I wonder what Audubon has to gain from lying like this?”

    If I may play devil's advocate for a moment: suppose Audubon has already decided that ANWR is worth protecting for other reasons. Sheer natural beauty, say. Then drilling is something that should be prevented. And inflating the wildlife numbers is a way of achieving that subgoal.

    Here is where I am supposed to reveal the secret of how to effectively respond to Morton’s Demon. The truth is, though, I’ve got nothing.

    I wonder if (metaphorically) attacking a poorly-defended position would work, if you can find one.

    I mention this because my SO started questioning religion when she realized that the Egypt she was learning about in school, with the dynasties and pyramids and stuff, was the same Egypt she'd been hearing about in Sunday school, with the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea and stuff. There aren't two Egypts, and somehow the stuff she was learning in school and the stuff she was learning in church had to fit together.

    I don't know how to look for such weak spots. I've never been good at that whole empathy thing. In Glen Morton's case, I gather it was simply the fact that a YEC working as a petroleum geologist works every day with things that contradict his faith, and his demon just couldn't withstand the constant onslaught of reality.

    Maybe if you could find an internal contradiction, some place where he believes A for rational reasons, and not-A for irrational ones, you could press there.

  18. "Sometimes the brain makes connections between things that are seemingly unconnected or only distantly or abstractly related."

    Did you find out what kind of owls they were, scientific and common?

    I was hoping there would be some crazy synchronisity there!

    Anyway I was actually looking for an atheist take on the concept of synchronicity (is that a jungian term?)


PLEASE NOTE: The Atheist Experience has moved to a new location, and this blog is now closed to comments. To participate in future discussions, please visit

This blog encourages believers who disagree with us to comment. However, anonymous comments are disallowed to weed out cowardly flamers who hide behind anonymity. Commenters will only be banned when they've demonstrated they're nothing more than trolls whose behavior is intentionally offensive to the blog's readership.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.