Earlier today, @colvinius tweeted a link to this article, which asked “How can Americans talk to one another—let alone engage in political debate—when the Web allows every side to invent its own facts?” It explored the idea that as people increasingly get their news from online sources, there is a risk that misinformation can spread rapidly, and that “Once the meme is out there, it’s very hard to quash.” One paragraph really resonated with me:
Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said (or is famously reputed to have said) that we may each be entitled to our own set of opinions, but we are not entitled to our own set of facts. In a time when mainstream news organizations have already ceded a substantial chunk of their opinion-shaping influence to Web-based partisans on the left and right, does each side now feel entitled to its own facts as well?
The entire article is well worth reading if you are yet to do so, but the reason I mention it here today is that it reminded me of the concept of Morton’s demon. I was first introduced to Morton’s demon by my friend Jason a little while ago. The idea of Morton’s demon was introduced by Glenn Morton, who (I gather) used to be a young earth creationist:
Maxwell suggested a famous demon which could violate the laws of thermodynamics. The demon, sitting between two rooms, controls a gate between the two rooms. When the demon sees a speedy molecule coming his way (from room A), he opens the gate and lets the speedy molecule leave the room and when he sees a slow molecule coming at the gate (from room A), he holds it closed. Oppositely, when he sees a speedy molecule coming at the gate from room B he closes the gate but when he sees a slow molecule from room B coming toward the gate he opens it. In this way, the demon segregates the fast moving molecules into one room from the slow ones in the other. Since temperature of a gas is related to the velocity of the molecules, the demon would increase the temperature of room B and cool room A without any expenditure of energy. And since a temperature difference can be used to create useful work, the demon would create a perpetual motion machine.
When I was a YEC, I had a demon that did similar things for me that Maxwell’s demon did for thermodynamics. Morton’s demon was a demon who sat at the gate of my sensory input apparatus and if and when he saw supportive evidence coming in, he opened the gate. But if he saw contradictory data coming in, he closed the gate. In this way, the demon allowed me to believe that I was right and to avoid any nasty contradictory data. Fortunately, I eventually realized that the demon was there and began to open the gate when he wasn’t looking.
Essentially, Morton’s demon is an analogy for confirmation bias, where people pay attention to information that justifies their preexisting beliefs, and either ignore or deny information that contradicts their beliefs. A striking example of this is the climate change debate. Climate science is a very complex field, and thus there is no single piece of evidence that that can confirm or deny anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, people can pick and choose which pieces of evidence they choose to pay attention to. The good folk over at Skeptical Science do a good job of bringing up common climate sceptic arguments and rebutting them, but if you only get your climate change news from Andrew Bolt (or the Oz, for that matter), you’re not going to be exposed to those arguments.
As a scientist, I like to think that my beliefs, where possible, are based on the best available evidence rather than something my favourite blogger told me, but I also think that I’m probably as susceptible to Morton’s demon as the next person. That’s why I enjoy arguing with people who disagree with me (as long as it is civil and rational). If you disagree with something I say, feel free to tell me so, just explain why. I can’t promise to change my mind, but I’m happy to seek and destroy Morton’s demon whenever I can.