This blog post is going to examine just one example of Ben Davidson’s (Suspicious0bservers) use of “motivated reasoning” during his “Live Debate” that turned into a private Skype “discussion” with the science journalist Peter Hadfield (Potholer54).
It’s going to take some time to breakdown and go through the entirety of the scientific Gish Gallop that Ben Davidson uses throughout the video, “Discussion with Suspicious Observers.” For now, I feel it’s important to point out Ben Davidson’s use of motivated reasoning to reduce the unpleasant effects he experiences from the cognitive dissonance that arises whenever an expert disagrees with him.
Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?
In the Psychology Today article, “Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Dr. David Ludden pointed out that:
“We all harbor false beliefs, that is, things we believe to be true but in fact are not…Conspiracy theories are also false beliefs, by definition. But people who believe in them have a vested interest in maintaining them. First, they’ve put some effort into understanding the conspiracy-theory explanation for the event, whether by reading books, going to web sites, or watching TV programs that support their beliefs. Uncertainty is an unpleasant state, and conspiracy theories provide a sense of understanding and certainty that is comforting” (Dr. Ludden 2018).
Ben’s videos are filled with the questionable conclusions, and misinterpretations, that you’d expect from someone who doesn’t have any relevant degrees in science. Many experts and professionals have attempted to correct Ben Davidson, however Ben’s vested interests and wilful ignorance have, so far, won out.
Dr. Ludden’s article in Psychology Today goes on to introduce the British psychologist, Karen Douglas, who published research in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science that found, “that reasons for believing in conspiracy theories can be grouped into three categories: the desire for understanding, the desire for control/security, and the desire to maintain a positive self-image” (Ludden 2018).
Dr. Ludden goes on to point out that we’re constantly, “seeking explanations for events…And we don’t just ask questions. We also quickly find answers to those questions—not necessarily the true answers, but rather answers that comfort us or that fit into our worldview (Ludden 2018).
Beyond this obvious confirmation bias, is something called “motivated reasoning,” which occurs when decisions based on emotion are to reduce “cognitive dissonance.” According to RationalWiki, cognitive dissonance is:
“a psychological term which describes the uncomfortable tension that results from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs. It is also a description of the behaviors that allow you to override such dissonance” (RationalWiki 2018.)
Whenever someone experiences cognitive dissonance they will typically employ some form of motivated reasoning to deal with the unpleasantness.
What is Motivated Reasoning?
The Psychology Today article, “Motivated Reasoning: Confirmation Bias,” reveals that, “One of the most significant ways we warp our information processing and reasoning—and we do it outside of awareness that anything psychologically sneaky is going on—is called motivated reasoning.”
Motivated reasoning occurs whenever someone clings to a false belief system despite a preponderance of evidence that points out that what they believe is, in fact, wrong. So, what they tend to do is avoid contradictory evidence by not actively searching for it, while only looking for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, or set of beliefs.
As far as motivated reasoning goes, Psychology Today states:
“It’s easiest to understand when seen in operation. Cognitive scientists see motivated reasoning as a force that operates in the realm of political beliefs, particularly relating to such topics as climate change. Studies by political psychologists highlight denial of global warming or discrediting the science about it as an important example of motivated reasoning, whereby some people process scientific information about climate shifts to conform to pre-existing feelings and beliefs. After all, accepting that climate change is real portends unpleasant environmental consequences and would require most people to head them off by making significant changes in lifestyle. Changing one’s mind and changing one’s lifestyle are hard work and we prefer shortcuts, the goal to which we’d rather fit our conclusions” (Psychology Today 2018).
Before we get into an example from the Peter Hadfield’s (Potholer54’s) “Live Debate” turned private Skype “discussion” with YouTuber Ben Davidson (Suspiciuos0bservers), it’s worth mentioning that Psychology Today also points out how motivated reasoning plays a role in the personal sphere as well:
“For example, it is seen as a mechanism people commonly use to preserve a favorable identity, particularly in the Western world. In order to maintain positive self-regard, people (unwitting) discount unflattering information that contradicts their self-image or is otherwise troubling” (Psychology Today 2018).
That motivated reasoning is commonly used to “preserve a favorable identity,” and to “discount unflattering information that contradicts their self-image,” will be the focus of the remainder of this blog article.
Potholer54’s Discussion with Suspicious0bservers:
So, without further ado, let’s look at an example of motivated reasoning, which took the form of Ben Davidson’s (Suspicious0bservers’) tone argument with Peter Hadfield (Potholer54):
Ben @ 18:23 What I want to know is: why, and I don’t know if you did this in comments or if there was some other video or if you did this on Facebook, or whatever, because I don’t understand how this happened: but I got literally over 800 comments, within the span of 24-hours, all saying virtually the same thing, ‘that I didn’t understand what those papers were saying and that I didn’t have any basis whatsoever in talking about…’ (Hadfield 2018).
Fact: “Those papers” were about the science of climate change. Ben Davidson (Suspicious0bservers) has no relevant education, experience or credentials in any of the sciences. Therefore, Ben Davidson’s ideas/hypotheses on climate change science are bound to be flawed and erroneous; his misrepresentation of “those papers” is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
What Ben is implying is that Peter somehow directed his followers to go and post comments about how Ben “didn’t understand what those papers were saying,” when in reality: Peter (Potholer54) made a video that corrected Ben’s (Suspicious0bservers’) misrepresentations of the papers he cited in his click-bait video, “Yale’s Two Climate Bombs,” and Peter’s (Potholer54’s) audience took it upon themselves to point this out on Ben’s video; Ben’s reaction to what happened is a whole other issue in and of itself.
In this case, it’s easier for Ben Davidson to think that he’s right, and everyone else is wrong, than it is to confront the fact that maybe he doesn’t understand the science behind climate change as well as science journalist Peter Hadfield or the hundreds of people who bothered to take the time to comment on his video.
Anyway, this is a great example of Ben’s motivated reasoning and conspiratorial worldview at work: he’s right and anyone who disagrees with him must be wrong…or in on it. In this case, Ben is claiming that Peter still doesn’t understand what it was that Ben was getting at in his video. This is simply not the case, as we can see from Peter’s response:
Peter @ 19:00 Okay, then. Let’s talk about that, because I suspect the reason they said that was because you didn’t understand what the papers were saying. Now, if you want to say, ‘you did understand them.’ That’s absolutely fine with me, and that’s what I would like to talk about (Hadfield 2018).
It’s clear to everybody, but Ben Davidson, what has happened here.
When presented with evidence that those outside of his own echo chamber (Suspicious0bservers) disagree with him, Ben Davidson is forced into motivated reasoning – there had to have been some sort of organized campaign against him – in order to protect his fragile intellect from the fact that hundreds to thousands of people finally noticed, and pointed out, how wrong he is.
In his Psychology Today article, Dr. Ludden went to the research to find out why people latch onto conspiracy theories:
“Research shows that people who feel socially marginalized are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. We all have a desire to maintain a positive self-image, which usually comes from the roles we play in life—our jobs and our relationships with family and friends” (Dr. Ludden 2018).
When people fall outside of their social circles – due to an accident, sickness, mental health issue or even just from quitting their job because they’ve slowly adopted a paranoid or conspiratorial worldview – they obviously become more isolated from family and friends. However, this is not total isolation since people with this kind of spare time often turn to the Internet for entertainment and inadvertently get an “education” in the process.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with learning things from the Internet, it does become a problem when we only search for information that confirms our preconceived beliefs and increasingly “engage in motivated reasoning as a way to avoid or lessen cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort we experience when confronted by contradictory information, especially on matters that directly relate to our well-being” (Psychology Today 2018).
Ben Davidson’s ability to convince his audience that he’s right, or has knowledge about climate change (earthquake forecasting/prediction, etc.) that the experts do not, is something that he makes money off of.
In this way, Ben Davidson (Suspicious0bservers) has made a living off of pandering to the “contrarian science” crowd for years by playing off of something that Tom Nichols described in his book, The Death of Expertise:
“American culture tends to fuel these kinds of romantic notions about the wisdom of the common person or the gumption of the self-educated genius. These images empower a certain kind of satisfying social fantasy, in which ordinary people out-perform the stuffy professor or the nerdy scientist through sheer grit and ingenuity” (Nichols 2017).
This self-identified image is a facade that Ben Davidson (Suspicious0bservers) was unable to keep up for the duration of his 41-minute “Live Debate” turned private Skype “discussion” with the science journalist Peter Hadfield (Potholer54).
Ben Davidson fancies himself a “self-educated genius” who does research that will one day lead to real world advances in the fields of climate change, solar physics and earthquake forecasting/prediction. These are just a few of Ben’s self-identified accolades that require careful motivated reasoning to ensure their preservation.
(“Carbon Models” Header Image taken from “Climate Change Just Changed“)
Hadfield, Peter. “Discussion with Suspicious Observers.” YouTube: April 03, 2018. Website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttmQbCeSQAg
Ludden, David. “Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Psychology Today: January 06, 2018. Website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-apes/201801/why-do-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories
Nichols, Tom. “The Death of Expertise.” Oxford University Press: March 01, 2017. Website: https://www.amazon.com/Death-Expertise-Campaign-Established-Knowledge/dp/0190469412/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1521833181&sr=8-1&keywords=the+death+of+expertise
Psychology Today. “Motivated Reasoning.” PsychologyToday.com: April 06, 2018. Website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/motivated-reasoning
Reality Challenged. “Potholer54’s ‘Live Debate’ Turned ‘Private Discussion’ with YouTuber Ben Davidson (Suspicious0bservers) on Climate Change – A Partial Transcript.” RealityChallenged.blog: April 04, 2018. Website: https://realitychallenged.blog/2018/04/04/potholer54s-live-debate-turned-private-discussion-with-youtuber-ben-davidson-suspicious0bservers-on-climate-change-a-partial-transcript/
Reality Challenged. “Potholer54’s ‘Live Debate’ Turned ‘Private Discussion’ with YouTuber Ben Davidson (Suspicious0bservers) on Climate Change – Transcript Part Two.” RealityChallenged.blog: April 05, 2018. Website: https://realitychallenged.blog/2018/04/05/potholer54s-live-debate-turned-private-discussion-with-youtuber-ben-davidson-suspicious0bservers-on-climate-change-transcript-part-two/#more-1556
Saad, Gad. “Are You Open-Minded? Situational factors that affect one’s dogmatism.” Psychology Today: March 30, 2018. Website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/homo-consumericus/201803/are-you-open-minded
The RationalMedia Foundation Inc. “Cognitive Dissonance.” RationalWiki: March 03, 2018. Website: https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance