13 October 2015

The Vaccine to Prevent Crazy

Posted by Dan Satterfield

This is part two, please read part one first here.

It’s really true. Understanding just four concepts, involving how we filter information, can improve your critical thinking skills. I saved number four for last, and it’s by far the most fascinating. It’s called authoritarianism, and some of the most interesting research on it has been done by Dr. Bob Altemeyer, a psychologist at the Univ. of Manitoba.

What if I told you, that by scoring your answers to a 22 question test, I can make rather accurate predictions about how you feel about certain issues? The test questions were developed years ago, and they do not ask you how you feel about the keystone pipeline, or how much you love/hate Donald Trump. Nonetheless, once it is scored, it is a powerful predictor of someones opinions and actions. I stumbled  across it doing research on the psychology of science denial, since I often wondered why some people seem totally immune to facts. I’m talking about the kind of person who, if you tell them the sky is blue, and walk outside and show them the sky is blue, will still tell someone a day later that the sky is not blue!

Why do I care?

ndtvaccI have often come across people who ask a question about science, but are really making a statement. Is it worth trying to explain to them why natural selection is real, or that the sun is not responsible for climate change? Not if they’re a strong authoritarian! You might as well be talking to a brick wall, and if by chance you are able to show them that their opinion is not based in fact, they’ll be back to their old opinion the next day.

The reason these people cannot be convinced by facts is that they let others do their thinking for them. In fact, they seem to have poor critical thinking skills, and are more likely than the average person, to associate with others who have their viewpoints. So much so, that they rarely even meet others who have differing opinions (remember the majority illusion from part one?), and only consume news that agrees with their viewpoint as well. You may be saying “Wait a second Dan, EVERYONE does these things!” Your right, but strong authoritarians take it to the extreme.

Am I one?

AuthoritariansReading the book (FREE here via PDF, but you can buy a hard copy on Amazon.), I started asking myself the obvious question, “am I an authoritarian???”

Thankfully, according to the test devised by Altemeyer I’m not! (Note the original link tot he quiz was not working. Now fixed)

This is good, since his research indicates that people who are, tend to be more likely to be prejudiced, and to commit torture, and other crimes in the name of the government. They have a high degree of obedience to established authorities, and tend to be lower educated as well. Most importantly they tend to be heavy traditionalists.  In a sense they are the opposite of those bumper stickers you see that say Question Authority! To really understand it, you must read the book, and after you finish it, you’ll have an understanding of how some people think, that greatly exceeds most everyone else.

Altmeyer’s research has been noticed by the science community, and he was awarded the  Behavioral Science Prize by The American Assoc. for The Advancement of Science, for it. 

Are YOU an Authoritarian?

So you may be wondering by now if you are an authoritarian! Well, read the book, take the test, and score yourself, and I highly recommend doing so. The research shows that strong authoritarians tend not to finish the book, and it predicts I’ll probably get mean comments from strong authoritarians for talking about it. I talk about climate change and do weather on TV, so I have a thick skin, but I’ll let you know what happens!

The Test

Here are 3 questions from the 22 question test. You answer on a scale of +4= strongly agree to -4 strongly disagree. Any number you choose from +4 to -4 is OK and scored differently.

5. It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and
religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create
doubt in people’s minds
___ 6. Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.
___ 7. The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.


Apparently about 15% of the population are authoritarians. Altemeyer calls them “right-wing authoritarians” but cautions that right-wing does not necessarily have the same political meaning it does in 2015 America. That said, it seems that people who align with theT ea Party, are on the whole, strong authoritarians.

Even more interesting, is research that’s shown that about 15% of the population thinks climate change is a hoax or a conspiracy, and this is about the same number of people who are high authoritarians. Pretty much the same numbers on the age of the Earth, or the Moon landing. The anti-vaccine crowd is about that level as well, while the chemmies are below 10%. Just a coincidence? I don’t think so, since only a strong authoritarian personality would be able to dismiss the high mountain of verifiable evidence that supports such well understood science.

Tying it All Together

From the 538 Blog and another discussion of authoritarianism. Click image to read.

From the 538 Blog and another discussion of authoritarianism. Click image to read.

So what should you think if you score highly on the test. Are you evil?

NO! (Well, in general, but read the book, and please ask to be excused from jury duty.)

It does mean  you have a diamond strong  bubble around your beliefs, and are unusually resistant to changing your opinions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. It’s also likely you suffer from confirmation bias, and the majority illusion to a much greater degree than others. Now, I know Ph.D’s who are strong authoritarians, and high school dropouts who would score near zero, but in general, the higher your education, the lower you score. If you are talking with someone who displays the signs of strong authoritarianism, then quit wasting time reciting facts, and go do something else!

Understand the four concepts in these two blog posts, and apply them to your own thinking. If you do, you can’t help but be a better judge of what is real and what is not. You will probably wait until you’ve had a university course or two in Biology and physics, before claiming all the world’s science bodies are wrong about the big bang, natural selection and climate change. In addition, you’ll save money by not having to buy vinegar to spray at those chem-trails.

Note- Beware, there is a lot of online junk about authoritarianism, and it looks like almost none of the purveyors have taken the time to read the book!