Race as a False Construct Maintained due to the “Backfire Effect”

In the final of three episodes on the “Backfire Effect” by the “You Are Not so Smart” podcast, renowned cognitive psychologist based at the University of Bristol, U.K, Steven Lewandowsky introduces the concept of “motivated skepticism.” He found that people were slow to update their memories after deeply held false beliefs were corrected. People cling to beliefs about war, politics, climate change, the media and “group identity”  even after contrary evidence is presented. The threshold percentage “tipping point” that leads one to change their opinions varies but after studying the latest Presidential Election, Lewandowsky found that 40% consistently lead people to change their opinions. The amount of negativity on both sides of the election was a problem. However, “fake news” and propaganda isn’t the problem according to Lewandowsky, but it is instead control in that people choose what they hear. If a media source continually goes against your beliefs, people will walk away in favor of one that capitulates to your views.This phenomena is not necessarily unique to the United States but Lewandowsky found that Australians and Germans generally change their opinions after a belief is proven false. Whether it be climate change, race relations or anything else, little progress can be made if people cannot even agree on what information is factual and what is not, especially in a democracy.

At one point in the episode, Lewandowsky explains that “Science is smarter than scientists” and that scientists listen to science. However, as we’ve seen in class, scientists and medical clinicians have their own biases learned from society over time. As detailed throughout Medical Apartheid, these types of professionals have historically treated blacks unequally in practice. In Toni Morrison’s Home Cee admires Dr. Scott for apparently treating sick black and poor people when others would not. However, in reality, he systematically sterilized blacks exclusively, including Cee, without their consent. In the podcast episode, partisanship is the key factor in deciding what information people accept, reject, or seek out. Lewandowsky refers to partisanship as a drug or a lens that changes people’s perspective. In saying that people are partisan, he refers to synonyms “tribe, party, team and ingroup” which in relating to this class, could include race.

In American society, there is an emphasis put on race, ultimately stemming from slavery. While people may be bigots and racists behind closed doors, there is still a general consensus that all races are equal. However, even so there is still a general belief that all races are different. In reality, as we learned earlier in the semester while watching “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” there is actually no trait, characteristic, or gene inherent in people that distinguishes race. There is in fact great genetic diversity within races and there are often more commonality between people of other races than their might be within. While one could point to examples like the Sickle Cell Anemia being present in a lot of people with African ancestry, this is actually a misconception. In class we learned that the gene variant for sickle cell disease is actually related to malaria, not race or skin pigmentation.

Therefore, the concept of dividing people into races is factually wrong. However, so many people believe that race exists that it is a social fact, and therefore does. The amount of scientific information it would take to convince all people that race does not actually exist could never be conveyed because the people would walk away before even hearing it all. For this reason, voices in the black community must be very proactive in conveying their desire for equality under the law as well as to be genuinely perceived as being equal, and specifically not inferior. However, while this increased flow of information changes some people’s opinions and perceptions, the “backfire effect” leads too many bigoted or insensitive white people to get annoyed. This annoyance resulting from the dissonance between what some people believe and what they are being told can actually reinforce the false beliefs. Unfortunately, if science and reason cannot change people’s minds, protests could (and in some cases have) become riots.

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