Controversy clouds opinion

Why it’s impossible to have a reasoned debate about abortion

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie Fohl, the president of Choose Life McGill, stood up in front of a small crowd in Leacock 232 to introduce her club and the guest speaker she had invited to give a talk that night, anti-abortion activist Jose Ruba. “Our goal is to promote respect for human life,” she began, before adding that she hoped the event would “encourage discussion and thoughtful consideration of abortion.”

It was a reasoned introduction, but 30 seconds after Ruba took the stage, he was suddenly interrupted by a group of protesters. Shouts of “Please go” echoed through the room in sync with the pounding of fists on desks. Ruba’s supporters began to get upset; a man in the audience compared the disrupters to the Hitler Youth. Campus security was called first, followed by the police. In the end, the talk was cancelled, two protestors were arrested, and McGill came off looking like a black hole for free speech. What the hell happened?
Admittedly, the title of Ruba’s talk – “Echoes of the Holocaust” – sounded a little crazy, if not offensive. But even if Ruba had been giving a less controversial anti-abortion talk, does debating such a controversial topic in an environment of opinionated students actually lead to “thoughtful consideration” as Fohl and others had hoped?
In 1978, Mark Lepper, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, ran an experiment to see if he could change the opinions that Stanford students held on the death penalty. Lepper surveyed a random sample of undergraduates and chose 24 that were strongly in favour of capital punishment and 24 that were strongly opposed to it. He then presented each of the 48 students with two written statements. The first detailed a study showing that murder rates were lower in states that had the death penalty; the second detailed a different study showing that murder rates were actually higher in states that had the death penalty.

Given such conflicting information, one might predict that the students’ extreme views on the death penalty would be moderated, but this is not what Lepper found. After reading the statements, those that favoured the death penalty before were now more in favour of it, and those that opposed the death penalty before were now even more opposed to it: views had become more extreme, not less. Lepper concluded that the students simply believed information that confirmed what they already thought and ignored everything else.

A 2004 study used brain imaging to examine Lepper’s finding, dubbed “motivated reasoning,” in more detail. Scientists at Emory University in Georgia put committed Republicans and Democrats in a brain scanner and presented them with information that showed then-Republican president George W. Bush and Democratic senator John Kerry committing acts of hypocrisy – a Bush quote, for instance, extolling America’s troops, followed by the revelation that on the same day he cut health benefits to thousands of war veterans.

While still running the brain scanner, the scientists then asked each subject what they thought about the two politicians. Surprise, surprise – the Democrats labelled George Bush a hypocrite while excusing John Kerry’s actions, and the Republicans labelled John Kerry a hypocrite while excusing George Bush’s actions.

What the brain scanner found, though, was more interesting. When the subjects were calling the politician they disliked a hypocrite, brain regions associated with normal reasoning lit up. But when they were excusing the hypocritical actions of the politician they favoured, brain regions associated with both reasoning and strong emotions lit up. The scanner had caught them in the act: when it came time to thoughtfully consider information that went against what they believed in, the subjects simply couldn’t – their reasoning was coloured by emotion.

Daniel Lametti’s column will be back again in two weeks. In the meantime, send extremely emotionally-invested opinions only to