Jun 09 2020

Perhaps More Than Ever – Truth Matters

The following quote from a recent address to graduating student resonated with me:

“What’s become clear is that social media can also be a tool to spread conflict, divisions, and falsehoods, to bully people and promote hate,” he said. “Too often, it shuts us off from each other instead of bringing us together, partly because it gives us the ability to select our own realities, independent of facts or science or logic or common sense. We start reading only news and opinions that reinforce our own biases. We start cancelling everything else out. We let opinion masquerade as fact, and we treat even the wildest conspiracy theories as worthy of consideration.”

The speaker advises students to, “Use all that critical thinking you’ve developed from your education to help promote the truth.” I agree, although honestly I think students need to learn much more critical thinking than is typically the case. These words could have been spoken by any skeptic or science communicator, and is a core message of the skeptical movement. We need scientific literacy, deep understanding of critical thinking and how to apply it every day, and media literacy. But these words were spoken recently by former president Barack Obama. Don’t leg your political opinion of him, if they are negative, color your perception of these words. Let them speak for themselves.

That is actually the point I want to make in this post. Humans are tribal by nature. We now know from years of psychological study that we tend to plant our flag with one group, one ideology, one narrative – and then defend it at all costs. The more we identify with a position, or see it as a marker of our group, and the more we do, the greater our motivated reasoning. For things we don’t care about, or do not identify with, we tend to revert to a fairly rational approach – listening to new evidence and incorporating into our view. So we have the capacity to be rational, when our identity does not get in the way.

Of course even then, we struggle with a host of cognitive biases, heuristics, and flawed perception and memory. But motivated reasoning brought on by defending our perceived identity is rocket fuel to these biases. We can easily manufacture an entirely fabricated false reality, cut off from facts and even basic logic. We can share this reality with other members of our identified group, making the task quicker and more powerful, and providing the profound illusion of authenticity. We then perceive people living in other reality bubbles as “mentally ill”, or call into question their motivations and sincerity. Honest debate and discussion becomes impossible.

Right now we are in the middle of a pandemic, perhaps the worst in a century, and a social flashpoint around racial justice. There are a lot of complex issues involved, not only when it comes to facts but how to make the best sense of those facts. These are the times when we need to double-down on critical thinking. What does this mean?

This means – do not accept a narrative or claim simply because it is comfortable, because it reinforces your “side” or supports a long-held position. Step back from any important claim and ask the basic skeptical questions. Is this really true? The full story is probably more complex and more messy than this clean narrative. Does the other side have any legitimate points, even if I disagree with their basic position? Is someone with whom I essentially agree overstating the case, or too easily dismissing counter points or inconvenient facts?

Times of social and political conflict benefit the most from these core skeptical attributes. Remember the principle of charity. Remember to be humble. This is a great time to question your own position, to listen, to learn, and to grow. Even when something rubs you the wrong way and just doesn’t sound right, don’t just go with your immediate gut reaction. Try to take a fresh and objective view at the issue and find out what people are really saying. You may be surprised.

But definitely – get out of your bubble? Look for information and opinions that make you feel uncomfortable, and then sincerely take a look at them. Don’t just accept the narrative that is being handed to you, even though it makes you feel all fuzzy. If you are not mentally uncomfortable, then you are not challenging yourself and making a sincere effort to be objective. Start by questioning, even arguing against, something your “side” is saying.

As I like to do, I often point toward extreme examples in order to illuminate a phenomenon. But then the challenge is not just to point and snicker, but to look for more subtle manifestations of the same thing in yourself and your perceived allies. For example, I was recently criticized for calling the current protesters “protesters” because clearly they are just thugs and looters. I think it’s reasonable to call that position extreme, but the person clearly believed in that narrative and it framed their larger opinion.  For the record, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that there is legitimate political protests going on, by any reasonable definition. But we can step back and look objectively at what is happening. How much violence is there? Who is doing it and where is it focused? Is it effective or counterproductive? What role are the police playing in calming or instigating violence? What are the ethics of civil disobedience?

And there are a hundred legitimate and complex sets of questions surrounding this current moment with which we will need to wrestle. The best way forward is for everyone to get out of our intellectual fox holes and to engage with each other in good faith. Of course, not everyone will do this, and we will need to consider how best to deal with them as well.

None of this “intellectualizing” of the protests and the political struggles is meant to minimize the real lived experience of the people involved. I am also not being critical of passion – passion is important, and can propel meaningful political change. The trick is to use your passion for energy and motivation, but not let it overwhelm your reason and objectivity. We need both. We also need to recognize the different experiences and perspectives of different segments of our society, while simultaneously remembering that we are all in this together.

In the end we all share one inescapable reality. Let’s not forget that. Do not confuse your narrative with that reality. I am hopeful that we will come out of this moment stronger and wiser. History will grind slowly forward, but it is not automatic or inexorable. We each have to do our part.

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