Hear, believe, think?

June 26, 2019

Our prime minister has for years repeated his corruption allegations ad nauseum against Mian Nawaz Sharif and PML-N leaders. And yet there are three major facts that exonerate Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N.

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In a poll in 2015, 42 percent Americans erroneously believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. If you recall, President George Bush went to war against Iraq for the purported reason that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

In the war, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died and countless millions lost homes and livelihoods and suffered untold miseries only because the warmongering American government falsely convinced its people that Iraq had these weapons. And years after destroying Iraq and finding no weapons, nearly four in ten Americans still hold on to that false belief.

Why do people hold on to false beliefs? Why don’t people change their beliefs even in the face of new information that’s contrary to their original beliefs?

Work by two UC Berkeley researchers, written in August 2108 in the journal ‘Open Minds’, suggests that “once a belief takes hold, it can be hard to make it budge, even with reams of data and evidence... When a person gets just a few jolts of positive feedback for their belief, they feel very certain they’re right. This certainty persists even if the overall body of evidence suggests the person is wrong”.

But how do we come to believe what we believe? According to an article in the online journal ‘Fast Company’ in November 2018, “we form beliefs in a haphazard way, believing all sorts of things based just on what we hear out in the world but haven’t researched for ourselves.”

“This is how we think we form abstract beliefs: 1) We hear something; 2) We think about it and vet it, determining whether it is true or false; only after that 3) We form our belief.

“It turns out, though, that we actually form abstract beliefs this way: 1) We hear something; 2) We believe it to be true; 3) Only sometimes, later, if we have the time or the inclination, we think about it and vet it, determining whether it is, in fact, true or false.”

According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “people are credulous creatures who find it very easy to believe and very difficult to doubt. In fact, believing is so easy, and perhaps so inevitable, that it may be more like involuntary comprehension than it is like rational assessment”.

Quoting again from the same article, “how we form beliefs was shaped by the evolutionary push toward efficiency rather than accuracy. Abstract belief formation (that is, beliefs outside our direct experience, conveyed through language) is likely among the few things that are uniquely human, making it relatively new in the scope of evolutionary time”.

“Before language, our ancestors could form new beliefs only through what they directly experienced of the physical world around them. For perceptual beliefs from direct sensory experience, it’s reasonable to presume our senses aren’t lying. Seeing is, after all, believing. In fact, questioning what you see or hear can get you eaten. For our evolutionary ancestors, it was better to be safe than sorry, especially when considering whether to believe that rustling in the grass is a lion.”

“As a result, we didn’t develop a high degree of skepticism when our beliefs were about things we directly experienced, especially when our lives were at stake. As complex language evolved, we gained the ability to form beliefs about things we hadn’t actually experienced for ourselves – and tended to believe them just as strongly.”

But how do our minds act so that our beliefs can’t be changed even in the face of contrary evidence? From a March, 2016 article in the magazine ‘Psychology Today’ we learn that “our beliefs become impervious to the facts in a process psychologists call cognitive immunization.

“Cognitive immunization helps to explain why some beliefs become even stronger when challenged. They also help to explain how we cannot let go of some beliefs in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.”

I often tweet my columns and other stuff critical of the PTI. In response I get four types of responses. First, those who agree with me and like or retweet my tweet. Second, those who agree or disagree but engage with facts and figures. Third, those who, while respectful, are adamant about their beliefs and try to argue for their point of view no matter what the reality is by emphasising or twisting one or two bits of information. And finally there are those who bring forth vitriol and ad hominem attacks. I find this name-calling depressive. So I have tried to read about and understand why people who know very little about us feel knowledgeable enough or comfortable enough to call me or my colleagues corrupt or liars. What allows them to form such beliefs on mere allegations and then hold on to such beliefs even when evidence to the contrary is plentiful?

Our prime minister has for years repeated his corruption allegations ad nauseum against Mian Nawaz Sharif and PML-N leaders. And yet there are three major facts that exonerate Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N. First, in the NAB court trials against Nawaz Sharif the court wrote in one of the judgements that no evidence of corruption was brought against Nawaz Sharif by the prosecution. Note that the judgement didn’t say that there wasn’t evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. It said no evidence was brought forth.

To be sure Nawaz Sharif was convicted by NAB courts in two cases of assets beyond means, but one judgement has already been suspended and the other is pending deliberation in higher courts. Many lawyers have written how weak the NAB court judgements were, especially given that the courts weren’t willing to believe that Nawaz Sharif’s father was a rich man who had legitimate money overseas like most rich Pakistanis. The current amnesty scheme is in fact partially aimed at such rich Pakistanis.

A second piece of information that I believe exonerates the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif is that fact that after one year of PTI rule when supposedly all corruption has ended – corruption that was the root of all evil in Pakistan and that kept Pakistan a debt-ridden poor country – Pakistan’s economy is deteriorating every day. Rather than seeing a surplus of cash from the corruption averted under the PTI, why are we sinking in a sea of debt and deficit? This has to mean that either the PTI is – heavens forbid – also corrupt or that the PM-LN wasn’t.

And finally, after almost one year of this government, why are we not seeing a government white paper detailing the PML-N’s corruption? Why don’t they tell us which CPEC and LNG and other programmes were based on corruption and what were the amounts and who were the people involved? I am not asking for conviction or even proper evidence, but surely the government of a prime minister who’s made anti-corruption his life’s calling by now should at least make credible and consistent allegations.

And yet the youthful supporters of the PTI still hold onto their beliefs that the PML-N is corrupt. But then as discussed above, cognitive immunisation explains the holding of these beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary.

The writer has served as federal

minister for finance, revenue and

economic affairs.

Twitter: MiftahIsmail


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