Name-calling and personal antagonism makes people emotional and more likely to double down on their preexisting beliefs:
In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”
The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.
In the context of the psychological theory of motivated reasoning, this makes a great deal of sense. Based on pretty indisputable observations about how the brain works, the theory notes that people feel first, and think second. The emotions come faster than the “rational” thoughts—and also shape the retrieval of those thoughts from memory. Therefore, if reading insults activates one’s emotions, the “thinking” process may be more likely to be defensive in nature, and focused on preserving one’s identity and preexisting beliefs.
Maybe the atheists and so-called skeptics and rationalists who defend and unapologetically engage in this kind of flagrantly incivil behavior don’t mind these kinds of findings because they’re happy to further entrench their own side further in and alienate those they hate on the other side. But they’re not, in practice, cultivating habits of mind that are rational or conducive to critical thinking. They’re not making truth likelier to see. So they are not making either their own partisans or their enemies, whom they should want to persuade, any more likely to be able to think clearly, critically, or truthfully. They are subject to, and are actively cultivating, the very blind, irrationalistic emotionalism and tribalism about values, identities, and beliefs that the atheist and skeptic movements were supposed to curb and counter.
It’s very disappointing and frustrating.
Read more of my own criticisms of this behavior at this compilation of links I have finally rounded up.