Negativity Bias and the Problem of Evil

negativity, homeless, suffering

The Problem of Evil causes me more trouble in my faith than any other atheistic argument. It’s the best case against God. When I see children with cancer, or hear of vulnerable people being abused, I wonder how God could allow it to happen. The argument comes in several varieties, but it runs something like this: the world contains a lot of evil–let’s say the quantity is X, and X is too much. If the Christian God exists, the world would contain less than X. So, the Christian God must not exist.

cancer, child, evil, faith, negativity bias

Now, the reason we think that X is too much evil is because of its relationship to the amount of good in the world. If there was infinitely more good than evil, then I don’t think the problem would get off the ground. But it seems to many people that the good-to-evil ratio is less than optimal. Maybe there’s more evil than good, or maybe there’s just not enough good to “make up” for the evil in the world. Maybe the ratio would need to be 100:1 (good:evil), or 1,000:1. But whatever the ratio is, it seems wrong for a world superintended by the Christian God.

Doubting My Doubts

But a year or so ago, I read about something that made me question my reasoning about evil: negativity bias. Could it be that the power of the Problem of Evil argument rests on a flaw in our cognition? I first encountered the concept in Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. They call it “negativity dominance.” They talk about how the brain reacts more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. For instance, look at these two images:

negativity, eyes
From Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 300.

According to Kahneman’s research, the image on the left will cause your heartbeat to speed up, but the image on the right will not. Researchers have also found that angry faces “pop out” of a series of faces, but happy faces don’t.(1) Negative images and experiences affect us more deeply and broadly than positive ones, and stick in the memory easier.

Slanted Perception

In a paper entitled, “Bad Is Stronger than Good,” researchers wrote:

Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. . . Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.(2)

negativity, child, evil

Another study claims that, “There is ample empirical evidence for an asymmetry in the way that adults use positive versus negative information to make sense of their world; specifically, across an array of psychological situations and tasks, adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.”(3) You only need to google “negativity bias” to see the mass of evidence. The bottom line is that our perception of the world is slanted. We tend to notice more bad than good, remember more bad than good, and feel the impact of bad more than good.

A Defeater for the Problem

So why is this a problem (or a ‘defeater‘) for the atheistic argument from evil? It undermines the argument, or at least the force of it, because our judgment about the good-to-evil ratio in the world is purely subjective. And if it is subjective, then it is undoubtedly inaccurate, and not just by a little. The bias is quite potent. How much good did we miss or forget or discount? How have we exaggerated evil in our minds? It’s not unlike an optical illusion.

negativity bias, evil, illusion

The truth is, we don’t know what the actual ratio is. Gathering such data accurately seems nearly impossible. But once we know we have a bias toward noticing and feeling evil, we should recalculate our judgment about the ratio. We should tell ourselves, “It may seem like there is far more evil than good in the world, but the ratio is probably closer to 1:1 than I thought.” And this should, rationally, lead us to doubt the force of the Problem of Evil. 

(1) Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, Ch. 28.
(2) Baumeister, Roy F., et al. “Bad is stronger than good.” Review of general psychology 5.4 (2001): 323.
(3) Vaish, Amrisha et al. “Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development” Psychological bulletin vol. 134,3 (2008): 383-403.

Reason, Evidence, and Politics

In the interest of well-formed and grounded political beliefs, I’m presenting a challenge.

Give me your opinion of how President Trump is doing. 

spectrum, evidenceI’m hoping to hear a variety of perspectives, since I have friends all along the political spectrum and from a variety of backgrounds. But I have two conditions: (1) it cannot be a moral criticism, and (2) you must provide empirical evidence. Why the two conditions? Well, most people I know on both sides will agree that Trump is morally embarrassing as a president (e.g., Trump’s vulgar comments about women to Billy Bush). But those who like Trump and those who dislike him speak often about either his accomplishments or errors in office. That’s what I where I want to focus. One may still reasonably argue that a man of his moral failings should not be President, but for now, that is beside the point.

Evidence Required

The second condition prevents us from merely shouting out assertions, like:

“His foreign policy is terrible,” or

“His economic policies are good for the country.”

evidenceYou’ll have to give evidence for your claim, and I want the source–give me enough information so that I can look it up myself. Saying, “His economic policy is making the stock market go up,” isn’t enough. You’ll have to give some evidence showing how his policies have directly affected the market. Saying, “His Supreme Court nominations are hurting our country,” isn’t enough either. You have to provide some reason why you think this. And it can’t simply be the fact that the nomination is a conservative or Republican. You’ll have to be more specific. Also, if you think one single policy decision outweighs anything else he might do, you’ll have to say why you think that is a reasonable view.

Let’s Avoid Partisan Reasoning

politics, evidenceImagine you are talking to someone on the other side of the political spectrum. The only way we can communicate with those who disagree is to find common ground. For instance, we all want peace, security, quality health care and education, etc. We want to avoid policies that hurt more people than they help. So instead of saying, “That’s bad because it’s liberal,” describe exactly what sort of harm the policy ultimately causes, and it ought to (ideally) be harm we can all agree on. The reverse is true as well. Also, if a policy provides a benefit to some group, does it also have costs to other groups? And do the benefits outweigh the costs? Does a policy degrade or demean human beings? Does a policy violate the Constitution in some way?

The Goal

This post aims to assemble reasons for and against the claim, Trump is doing a good job as President. In the end, I hope to have a more well-formed belief about this claim–as to its truth or falsity. And I hope all of my readers will be challenged to step out of the echo chambers of social media and backup their views. When no one ever pushes back on our opinions, we become evidentially lazy. Let’s push one another toward evidential excellence.

So, in the comments, give me one or two reasons, with evidence, for your belief about Trump’s performance in office so far. It will be interesting to see what happens!

The Other Side Is Evil (Moralized Disagreements)

us and them arroganceRarely do I come across something so closely aligned with my own goals in blogging that I use it in place of an original post. But this video is such a thing. In the context of the Kavanaugh hearings, Kyle Blanchette skillfully breaks down how we tend to view those who disagree with us as stupid or evil. This is NOT about which side is right, or even the reasons behind each side. It’s about how we judge those who disagree with us. Worth you time.

The Rationality of a Flu Shot

flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemologyI don’t like shots, in fact, I avoid them. Ironically, I visited my doctor yesterday, and left with a band-aid on my arm. I didn’t plan to get a flu shot, in fact I’ve never had one and never wanted one, but he talked me into it. I thought the whole dialectic was interesting, so I’ll share it with you. I think it illustrates some valuable principles of rationality and good belief formation. (The doctor actually said some of these things, and some of them I said to myself during the conversation.)

The Conversation

“Have you considered getting a flu shot?”
“No, not really. I never get them.”
“Would you be open to the idea?”
“Isn’t the flu a whole range of viruses rather than only one virus?”
“Yes.”
“But aren’t flu vaccines just aimed at one strain of the flu? That means that it protects you (imperfectly) against one strain out of many, which doesn’t seem very helpful. It would be like having an air bag that only inflates when I hit a red car.”
“Actually, the vaccine is aimed at multiple flu viruses, based on the most common ones from last year.”
“Ok, that’s good to know. But still, I hardly ever get sick or get the flu.”
“Well, even if you have a very low risk of getting the flu, the shot will lower the risk even more.” (The CDC website says that, “flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population.”)
“Yeah, that seems right. But I’m still not sure it lowers the risk enough to make it worth it.”
“What’s the downside of getting one, especially if it’s free?”
flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemology“I don’t like shots. Yeah, that’s not a great argument, I suppose.”
“Consider this: Lowering your own risk also benefits family health and public health. If your chance is lower, that lowers the risk of your kids getting sick or anyone around you getting sick, like in your church. That’s just good for everyone in Columbia.”
“Ok, I’m starting to realize that I don’t have any good reason, or enough good reasons to justify not getting a shot.” (He did address the concerns many people have about the vaccine causing various side-effects or illness, though I wasn’t worried about it. The chances are negligible. He also explained that the vaccine they use is protein-based, which means it doesn’t contain the actual virus, so it can’t give you the flu.)

So, next thing I know, the nurse comes in with the syringe. I tried to relax and remember that this is a very fleeting pain. Happily, the nurse was quite skilled and I hardly felt it. The arm is a bit sore today, but that’s the only negative effect.

The Takeaway 

What’s the takeaway here? 1) Be open to dialogue. You might learn something. You also might discover that your reasons, once they are out on the table, turn out not to be very strong. 2) Irrational fears shouldn’t guide our actions. The fear of a shot, for us needlephobes, is generally way over-blown and not realistic. I.e., it isn’t as bad as you think. 3) Public health may not have occurred to you as a relevant factor, but it should. It isn’t just about *you*.

For the Flu Shot Skeptics

skeptic faith thinkingNow, I know people worry about certain dangers of vaccines or flu shots. But I researched it a little (perhaps inadequately), and I couldn’t find any documented sources citing scientific evidence about the dangers of today’s flu shots. Flu shots have been modified over the years to eliminate anything that was discovered to be harmful.

“But what about the dangers we have yet to discover?” True, we must always admit the possibility that we’ll discover a dangerous chemical  later, after the damage is done. But it simply isn’t reasonable or practical to live your life dodging mere possible dangers. There would be no way to avoid everything that could harm you. We should try to avoid probable harms — things that we have good evidence for. That’s the only feasible way to live. Right now, the research says that flu shots are safe. Also, if you avoid flu shots based on a few bad stories you’ve heard, you’re probably falling prey to the availability bias (I might be doing this as well) or the fallacy of probability neglect.

“But given that we’ve repeatedly found new dangers in some medicines and treatments, shouldn’t we expect that there are lots of undiscovered dangers lurking in these drugs?” That’s an inductive argument, and I think it’s weak. Here’s why: medicine isn’t progressing slowly, like repeatedly adding 1 to a number and watching it grow. It progresses more like multiplying. So not only do we detect and solve new problems every year, but our methods for detecting, solving and preventing problems gets better every year, multiplying the effectiveness of medicine. That’s my perception, but I could be wrong.

Feedback

Persuaded? Let me know what you think. I’m open to hearing the arguments on the other side, provided you have documented evidence from reliable sources.