Sunday, April 28, 2013

Seeking truth vs. seeking validation of pre-existing beliefs

The Friday before last, the news was all dominated by one thing.  I was taking a vacation day from work, too tired to do anything, just lying there listening to the radio, so I heard a lot of it.  One thing that I heard was Shankar Vedantam saying that when we hear about things like that, we frame it in terms of our pre-existing beliefs.  He talked about how after the Newtown shootings, some people focused on guns while others focused on mental illness.

Then my friend called me, ranting about how outraged he was that some people on the internet speculated that one of the Boston bombers was Sunil Tripathi.  It struck me how much that came from his pre-existing beliefs, that of all the things that happened, that was the only thing that he was going on about.  People say all kinds of stupid things on the internet, this was just one of many stupid things people say on the internet.  But to him, this was the most important thing.  More important than the bombing itself.  More important than the good things people did afterwards to help the victims of the bombing.  More important than the fact that the New York Post printed a photo identifying two innocent people as suspects.  More important than the fact that more reputable news media (such as NPR, which is what I was following) did a better job of presenting accurate reports.

The same set of events has different meanings to different people, depending on their pre-existing views.  People seem so wrapped up in proving their point.  They don't use research to search for truth.  They use research to search for evidence to back up what they already believe.

On Facebook, I see lots of posts that are about showing how stupid the other side is.  They imagine that everyone who disagrees with them is some monolithic other side, with no diversity or subtlety or reason, and then the post things putting down this imaginary other side.

A liberal posts a photo captioned, "If you believe your factory should not be subject to federal regulations,  then you should not get federal funds when it blows up."

A conservative posts an image that says, "The 2nd Amendment isn't subject to opinion polls."

Both of these statements include underlying premises about what the people on the other side believes. I think that they are painting the other side with a broad brush.  That offends me.  It seems like the goal should be to seek truth.  The goal should be for all of us to work together to learn how to thrive as the human race.

What I would like is to see everyone trained in rhetoric and logic.  For example, one device that is used is to present something as "what the government's not telling you," or "what the corporations aren't telling you," or "what the media's not telling you."  I think people respond to this.  They instinctively latch on to the idea of a cover-up.  But if they were savvy to the fact that this sort of phrasing is often used as a way to tap into people's emotions, then they could see past that part of it, and more clearly evaluate how much truth there actually might be to the claim.

What can I do? Can I help my community to seek truth?  In a way, it's what I've wanted to do my entire adult life.  In my 20's, I wanted to do research to figure out how best to address social problems.    I was concerned that the solutions people were throwing at poverty and violence were based on ideology, and I wanted to do research to find out what really would work.  In my 30's, I wanted to work in educational administration, to help shape schools into environments where student learning would thrive.  Now I am thinking of being a librarian, to preserve and pass on knowledge.  I still don't really know what exactly my niche is, but what has been consistent is that I want to contribute to a search for knowledge and wisdom.  In particular, I want to support the quest to learn how we humans can best live together in compassionate, just, and sustainable ways.

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