The Church of Lance Armstrong

So Lance Armstrong has decided not to contest the charges of doping against him. That’s a result that disappoints me, but not because I think he’s innocent. It’s just that this appears to be a calculated PR move to try to blur the lines, and it would be much more satisfactory if all his dirty laundry was aired in a proper hearing. It will probably still come out eventually, but in such a way that people who want to ignore it will probably be able to.

I don’t particularly want to discuss Armstrong (you’ll probably be relieved to hear), but how people handle it when their beliefs are challenged, especially when they have a significant amount of emotional investment in those beliefs.

Even before the latest investigation, there was a huge body of evidence in the public domain that Armstrong doped. Not conclusive, probably not sufficient to convict beyond reasonable doubt, but very highly suggestive. A backdated Therapeutic Use Exemption  after he tested positive for cortisone, EPO in his samples from the 1999 Tour de France when retrospectively tested, the doping record and testimony of ex-teammates and the fact that virtually everyone he beat was doping all point in one direction.

Maybe it makes sense to withhold judgement while there’s been no official ruling of his guilt, although many of his fans went well beyond mere reservation. But even after he’s declined to defend the charge, it’s already clear that there are plenty of people who are not just a little unsure of what to make of it, but positively desperate to share their view that Armstrong’s as honest as the day is long.

His supporters say “he’s never tested positive” (apart from when he did, and ignoring the many confessed dopers like Marion Jones and David Millar who could say the same), “there’s no evidence” (ignoring the mountain of evidence already in the public domain), “it’s a witch hunt” (as if anti-doping officials would recklessly pursue a baseless case against the most (in)famous cyclist of modern times just because they didn’t like him), and so on. They cling to these arguments that have been knocked down over and over again (enough to qualify as PRATTs) as if they were holy relics.

Despite Armstrong’s decision not to contest the charges, effectively an admission of guilt despite his self-justifying rhetoric, no one seems to have actually changed their mind. It’s no surprise that people who thought he doped still hold their existing views, but so, apparently, do those who previously thought him innocent. Even the few who have slightly shifted their position to a reluctant admission of his probable guilt do everything they can to mitigate and explain away his transgressions.

Once anyone’s taken sides and made any serious investment in their chosen position on any subject, they’re very unlikely to change their view more than is absolutely necessary to convince themselves that they’re open to new evidence. Where possible, evidence against their current belief is ignored, rejected or minimised in some other way. This is particularly obvious in Young Earth Creationists, for example, but it’s a trait we all share, whether theist, atheist or agnostic. The more we invest in a belief, the more we defend it from uncomfortable new information, and the greater the risk of self-deception.

What can we do about this? I don’t know. Ideally, we wouldn’t become attached to beliefs, but that’s probably aiming rather high. Awareness is part of the solution, recognising our irrationality and doing what we can to fight it. It’s a start, anyway.

Photo by xandert, used under morgueFile License

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

6 responses to “The Church of Lance Armstrong”

  1. Joe Papp says :

    You’d have to believe in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and Jesus Christ in order to trust that LA won 7 Tours de France w/o doping…

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      And yet people continue to hold to that delusion. It costs them too much to reconsider their view, even though it was formed largely out of ignorance and Armstrong propaganda. So they either ignore/dismiss the overwhelming evidence, or else they try to move it to one side by attacking the process. A quick search of recent blog posts on this subject gives a flavour. Bizarre, but fascinating from a psychological point of view.

  2. raintreebranches says :

    i suppose the only thing to do is try to keep a (critically) opened mind as far as possible. And being aware that we’re prone to self deception (hopefully) makes us better at catching ourselves at it. but, easier said than done.

  3. Sabio Lantz says :

    You said:

    Once anyone’s taken sides and made any serious investment in their chosen position on any subject, they’re very unlikely to change their view more than is absolutely necessary to convince themselves that they’re open to new evidence.

    Can’t agree more. Presently on my site I am discussing acupuncture. That is not just a belief system, it is a way to make a living for the people I am discussing it with — huge investment.

    Trying to talk about medicine with my colleagues who are invested in their orthodox medicine can be tough too.

    Try talking about diet issues with vegetarians or others. Another hard issue. Politics…
    Sorry, people are just not built to be objective. I have been committed to foolish notions for large parts of my life. But hell, it has been fun. I get out just in time to enjoy another silly ride before the car crashes.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, the difficult and scary question is how to change people’s minds, if we’re so very good at deceiving ourselves. When someone’s getting involved in a dangerous cult, what can we do to make them aware of how they’re being lied to?

      I don’t know, but I’m hoping to have a go in a post soon.

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  1. How can we change delusional beliefs? « Recovering Agnostic - August 30, 2012

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