Facts Versus Feelings: When Reason and Emotion Collide

By Jonathan Timar

Sometimes facts aren’t pleasant. Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes what we wish to be true simply isn’t, and no amount of wishing will ever change it.

Often times the facts are in direct conflict with our feelings. Knowing the truth makes us uneasy, it triggers feelings we don’t like, perhaps guilt, disgust, frustration or any number of other undesirable emotions.

Fact: In some parts of Africa, albinos are murdered so that witch doctors can drink their blood and eat their body parts, in the belief it will provide magic powers and health benefits.

Having read that, I would imagine a good portion of my audience will immediately have their jaw drop open in disbelief. Maybe they think that saying such a thing is racist, unkind, cruel, or intolerant. Maybe they will rush over to Google or Snopes and madly type in some search words to prove to themselves that it’s just an urban legend and that I am out to lunch.

Sorry to tell you, but I am not. I haven’t even exaggerated for dramatic effect. I don’t have to. The truth is outrageous enough, and as unpalatable as it may be, it is still the truth.

My great-aunt is a holocaust denier.

As a child she lived very near a concentration camp. She saw everything that went on there, and what she couldn’t see she certainly knew about. It would have been impossible for her not to.

She’s not a bad person. In fact she is a very sweet, kind lady, and to my knowledge has never intentionally hurt anyone in her lifetime. She has certainly always been a positive person in my life.

And yet she denies that the holocaust, one of most despicable events in human history, and one that she witnessed first hand, ever happened. Why?

Does she truly believe that it did not happen? Doubtful.

More likely it is because the truth of what happened so close to her home is too painful to accept. The fact that her countrymen brutally murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the most barbaric ways imaginable triggers feelings and emotions within her that challenge everything she knows to be true, or wishes to be true about herself, and her people. As a result she now denies the facts that create such unpleasant feelings and chooses to remember only the pretty little flower gardens planted outside the camp.

Creating “facts” to support conclusions.

It’s a little known fact that almost every scientific study is designed with a certain conclusion in mind.

sciencemethod The preceding chart illustrates the basic steps take in any scientific study. Let’s break it down a bit:

  1. Ask a question. What do you want to know?
  2. Do research. What do we already know?
  3. Form hypothesis. What do we believe?
  4. Test with experiment. Put our belief to the test.
  5. Draw conclusion. Do the results confirm our belief?
  6. Report results. Share our belief with others.

Pretty straight forward, eh?. What this chart doesn’t tell us however is anything about the human factor. The human factor can easily invalidate any scientific study.

As an example, consider a study on the health effects of butter. The question is simple enough: Is butter healthier than margarine? The scientists hypothesize that butter, being more natural, will be healthier than margarine. The study itself lasts a couple of years and uses many test subjects, and in the end the conclusion is drawn that indeed butter *is* healthier than margarine.

So far so good. But suppose this study was funded by a margarine company that has a vested interest in margarine being considered healthier than butter. The scientists face financial pressure to alter their findings in favour of margarine, or risk losing their funding source. Some of them have no problem with this, other take longer to come around, some never do, but the majority rules and in the end most of the scientists have managed to agree that margarine is the healthier alternative, so that becomes the reported result.

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    The very next year the same study is done, this time funded by a dairy company, and reports the opposite conclusion.

    But what does this have to do with feelings?

    Everything. What could possibly make a man (or woman) or science go against all of the evidence on the table and report the opposite conclusion?

    Feelings. Feelings such as:

    • If we lose our funding, I’ll be out of a job!
    • If I don’t tow the line I could be discredited professionally.
    • Is it really such a big deal?
    • If I don’t look after number one, no one else will.
    • People who always do what’s right always seem to get screwed in the end, you have to be a bit ruthless if you want to survive.

    Faced with such feelings, most people immediately begin to rationalize. Suddenly the result no suits the way they feel about the situation. Unable to control the way they feel about the situation, they instead garble the facts in order to make them jive with their emotional agenda.

    The birth of a persecution complex.

    In some cases when those who are very certain of their beliefs are confronted with facts that call those beliefs into question, they react defensively. Those with the facts are accused of being bullies, or worse.

    Let’s take tarot cards as an example. The origin of tarot cards is pretty cut and dried. The history is well-known. And yet there is a rather vocal majority in tarot that clings to a variety of myths and legends about the cards, that while fun, and false. Any attempt to inform them of the truth is met with hostility, and accusations of persecution.

    The reason is simple. People have an emotional investment in these myths, and however irrational it may be, they will defend to the death (well maybe not death, I doubt they are that dedicated) their right to believe a lie.

    Think of all the people or groups you know who have a persecution complex and ask yourself if they are attached to something emotional that is clouding their view of the facts? Native Indians, certain feminists, Christians, Muslims, Darwinians, members of the Bloc Quebecois party. The list could go on and on.

    Emotions are stronger than facts.

    How else can you explain a person eating an entire tub of ice cream because they are depressed about their weight? A person returning to an abusive relationship because they are sad and lonely? People voting for George W. Bush a second time?

    Emotions are at the core of our humanity. It is human nature to react to our emotions before we consider the facts, and then reconcile that reaction later.

    Have you ever had an argument with someone, and then discovered you were wrong? What did you do? Did you apologize and leave it at that? Or did you apologize with a “but”?

    • But you should have realized that would upset me.
    • But you know I don’t deal well with that kind of thing.
    • But I was sure you said…
    • But I still think you could have considered my point of view.

    It doesn’t really matter what the “but” is, it’s always represents the same thing. It’s your mind attempting to manipulate the facts to agree with the way you feel, rather than accepting that your feelings were wrong in the first place. Accepting that our feelings are wrong is one of the most difficulty things to do because feelings are such a large part of who we are as people, both as individuals and as a species.

    Dispensing with the warm fuzzy talk.

    Here’s something to think about that you might not like:

    Sometimes, you are wrong.