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Cognitive Dissonance is described as the mental state a person experiences when their long term beliefs are somehow shown to be completely wrong-headed. It’s not a nice feeling to find out that your beliefs are ridiculous, so typically your brain will work overtime  to reduce this dissonance. The internal dialogue goes something like this: “I am a good, reasonable person, and a good, reasonable person would never indulge themselves in something batshit crazy, so if something is wrong with this picture, it’s got nothing to do with good, reasonable me”.

This line of thinking is, of course, a recipe for total fucking disaster.

There are a few tried and tested strategies that people have used to reduce this cognitive dissonance. Let’s look at them.

The Martyr Syndrome

When the world is agin you, it might be that you are wrong; but of course it’s more likely that you are part of that great tradition of saints and saintesses who went to their deaths for professing their beliefs. We’re thinking Joan of Arc here, who was burned at the stake in the 15th Century; or Saint Sebastian who was turned into a human pin-cushion in the 3rd Century. The issues nowadays might be about refusing marriage licenses to gay people, but look at the trouble you are making for yourself. Surely your willingness to go to jail is strong evidence that you are on the side absolute truth? Except that it isn’t. Jim Jones, Anders Breivik and the nut-jobs who boarded those airliners in 2001 all felt they were great martyrs despite their causes being absolutely fucking evil and insane. Martyrdom is simply an indication of how strongly you feel about your beliefs, not whether those beliefs bear any resemblance to reality.

The Galileo Syndrome

Galileo was a 17th Century scientist who famously went on trial for declaring that the Earth and all the planets travelled around the sun. Since then, Galileo has been cited by all sorts of cranks and nut cases, feeling sore after their crazy ideas were ignored or criticised by scientists and professionals. “Galileo was laughed at too”, they declare, somehow convincing themselves that the ridicule is evidence that their idea is spot on correct. Er, no. It’s just evidence that people are taking the piss out of your ideas. Real evidence of validity requires a hell of a lot more work. All sorts of mad beliefs have been the subject of mockery: Scientology, aura healing, foot reflexology, astrology and creationism, to cite a few examples off the top of my head. And guess what? They still very much merit all the derision they get. University physics professors get it the worst, apparently. Would be geniuses who believe they have out-Einsteined Einstein, regularly send them 800 page manuscripts, demand they read them immediately and then get monumentally upset if the professor passes on the opportunity. Here is a list of crackpot theories that would make your brain melt.

Bad, Bad People

When the flaws in their grand theories have been pointed out, it’s much easier for some people to attack their critics than to defend the merits of their convictions. The critics are mad, bad, in the pay of Big Whats-it, or otherwise compromised or evil intentioned. Never mind that some of their opponents might know what they are talking about, or might be much better acquainted with the literature or practice. This war against their critics can become quite a preoccupation. Anti-fluoridation activists have been known to ring the employers of their critics, demanding they be sacked. Or even worse: a few years ago, climate change deniers hacked into the servers of the University of East Anglia in order to “prove” that climate change researchers were behaving dishonestly. After no less than seven high profile investigations into the affair, the scientists were completely exonerated. Anti-GMO activists are currently using Freedom Of Information Act legislation against food researchers to make a similar case.

It’s All a Big Conspiracy

The extreme situation is where the brave Galileo constructs this elaborate framework of persecution that often goes all the way to the top. Because their beliefs have been demolished, now it’s not that the critics are just bad, but they are also well-organised. This is the default position of many anti-vaxxers, anti-fluoridation protesters and chemtrail fanatics.  The theory goes that if you pay or compromise enough people, they will do your bidding exactly the way you want them to. I sometimes wonder if these people have worked in any organisation – no matter what size – where internal competition, incompetence, misunderstandings, jealousy, favouritism and pettiness completely rule the roost. No human organisation is perfect, and while they might be able to get their shit together for a while, it’s unlikely to last very long. So what is it? A massively organised conspiracy against your crappy pet theory, or something much more mundane: that you haven’t done half enough work to convince people who might actually know what they are talking about?

Those Poor Deluded Souls

A friend of mine was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for most of his life. When I asked him how he managed to keep his beliefs together when confronted with the occasional well-informed debater? He told me they didn’t matter, because no matter what they said, he was absolutely certain they were wrong. This is similar to the perspective of an ex-Scientologist I know, who, when he was part of the cult, looked on non-Scientologists as somewhat inferior. When you have beliefs like this, it’s quite a strong inoculation against reality.

Ignore Them and They’ll Go Away

Some people simply pretend that their critics are not there. Even in the face of the worst criticism of their ideas, they simply press on, convinced of their righteousness. The master of this was Peter Popoff, a US faith healer and out-and-out fraud, who is still in the business of taking money from desperate people years after he went bankrupt after being exposed in the most public way possible. James Randi (featured in the video) calls people like Popoff “unsinkable rubber ducks” because they just carry on regardless of what’s thrown at them.

Change the Goalposts

This one is not so much about ignoring your critics as changing your position on specific objections while keeping the main thrust of your beliefs intact. Many commentators have noticed that creationism has evolved (ha!) over the years, first from a strict biblical view that assumed that men had a missing rib and the world was created in seven days, to Creation Science, to a more flexible view of time, to Intelligent Design, to “Teach the Controversy”. There are plenty of other examples of this. When the original ideas are exposed as complete bullshit, a new design comes along with the ability to change shape and better adapt to adversity like that robot in Terminator 2.

Hmm, there must be one more reaction…

Oh yeah.

Admit You Were Wrong

Ha ha! As if.

The whole experience of my Masters results has taught me to be suspicious of reasons and justifications, even when they seem blindingly obvious.

Had things not gone well with my thesis, I would have been able to fall back on a some very plausible reasons as to why I did not succeed. People would have understood, sympathised and consoled. I would have had a convenient comfort-blanket at hand to justify my failure. No-one would have been any the wiser, including myself.

The thing is, though, that I succeeded despite these set-backs. The obstacles put in my way were not, in themselves, sufficient reasons for failure. Huge though they were, they didn’t stop me from getting such high honours.

What I have learned, therefore, is that it is sometimes possible to succeed despite external adversity. Blaming other people or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is not always the most honest means of justifying failure. Often, perhaps, failure comes from within.

That’s a very good thing, too. Failure from within provides an opportunity to learn. While I can’t always do much about what happens around me, when it comes to me and my behaviour, change is possible.

I think I have learned more from this experience than just the subject I studied.

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