I once got into a discussion with one of my more religiously inclined acquaintances that went like this: “Truth is truth” he told me. “The truth is true whether you believe it or not.”
Coming from this fellow and knowing his background, I was quite surprised by his statement, which I totally agreed with. We were discussing evolution.
Then, the real him came out: His “truth” was that evolution occurred in every single species except for humans. We were, he told me, selected by the invisible sky people to not evolve like every other species on the planet.
We were, in his version of the truth, exceptional. His entire argument of absolute “truth being the truth” went against every single thing we know about evolution from the scientific community and centuries of study. He had his idea of what the truth was and no amount of discussion, showing of facts, or scientific research would change him.
He was getting his truth from the infallible sky people.
Unlike man, the sky people were were never wrong. He has just introduced me to the world of alternative truths and facts.
We are living through an interesting time, one in which actual facts and absolute truths are put into question by not just the usual suspects of the tinfoil-hat-wearing-History-Channel-watching unschooled, but those that are at the highest level of power.
Infallible sky people have been replaced by politicians, business leaders, political pundits and misinformed celebrities. Actual facts and absolute truths are mocked as being #FakeNews or “Alternative Facts” by those that want to push an “alternative point of view.” Tell a lie often enough…
Charles Pierce in “Idiot America” wondered how a country founded on intellectual curiosity had somehow devolved into a land of prideful know-nothings who wear their stupidity like a war medal.
Why would a country that put people on the the moon in 1960’s have to have protest marches by scientists some 50 years later because so few citizens knew enough about science to know facts from fakes?
Pierce wrote of three rules that make non-facts facts in the US:
- Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
- Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
- Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
Historically, the informed were able to outwit the #alt crowd or could generally dismiss them as crazies. UFOs in Roswell? Crazy. Grassy knoll shooter? Crazy. The entire world run by an unholy alliance between the Jews and the Catholics with the Knights Templar as their enforcers? Crazy.
We could fight crazy because, well, it was crazy. And intelligent people recognized it for what it was. Indeed, the History Channel would not exist without a lot of people believing that the untrue was true. Pierce’s Rule #1.
But now, the crazies are out in the open and running the show.
The brown people are overrunning your country. Those black kids should be more submissive or they wouldn’t get murdered by the cops so much. The Russians are our friends. CO2 emissions are good for you. The media lies. Facts are now subject to debate by those with little or no knowledge of them. (See When Everyone is an Expert, No One is an Expert)
It is pretty easy to see how certain saffron-tinted politicians expertly make use of Pierce’s three rules.
Thinking that this move towards believing alternative truths is not harmful to the larger society is dangerous. Consider the demonstrably wrong idea that some vaccines cause autism. Vaccines against childhood diseases has saved untold millions perhaps billions of lives.
100% preventable deaths and diseases are now rearing their ugly heads again as probably well meaning barely literate parents think that subjecting their kids to polio, measles, and other diseases is a good trade off because a former starlet told Oprah that she thought vaccines caused autism.
Measles was eliminated as a disease and declared eradicated in the US in 2000 after decades of mandatory inoculations. Until it came back in 2014 all because of a B-list celebrity with an ax to grind and a tragic untrue story convinced enough parents that her scary untrue opinion story was a fact.
Not surprisingly the majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.
Entire industries are born out of the efforts to fight facts with opinions and alternative facts. Commercials, editorials, books and movies are created and pundits are employed to fight the vast majority views of scientists (experts in their fields) that pretty much have proven that global climate change is at least to some extent, caused by human interaction with the environment.
Probably close to the same number that were hired to fight the fact that nicotine was a drug and that cigarettes caused cancer. Probably the same number that fought the crazy fact that the cross shoulder seatbelts saved lives or the crazy notion that repetitive blows to the head caused severe brain damage in college and professional football players.
How many Americans believe that brown skinned middle easterners (or anyone that does not look like you) pose some kind of existential threat to America? While it is always nice to blame those not in our tribe for our troubles, the FACTS are that white male religious extremists are more likely to kill you in the US than anyone from any kind of middle eastern terrorist organization or Mexican gang. The FACTS don’t match the opinion.
An opinion cannot be correct if it ignores the truth.
How can we change the minds of those who have their version of the truth embedded in their brains? Author David McRaney in his book “You Are Now Less Dumb” wrote:
“Research…shows that people who claim to understand complicated political topics such as cap and trade and flat taxes tend to reveal their ignorance when asked to provide a detailed explanation without the aid of Google. Though people on either side of an issue may believe they know their opponents’ positions, when put to the task of breaking it down they soon learn that they have only a basic understanding of the topic being argued. Stranger still, once subjects in such studies recognize this, they reliably become more moderate in their beliefs.”
McRaney gives us the clue on how to deal with those with the “My opinion is a fact” bias. Once people understand that they have only a cursory knowledge of a topic, they become more moderate in their beliefs. Simply ask them deep questions.
Instead of just making a thumbs-down icon on their Facebook feed, try asking a few questions.
Multiple studies over several decades have shown that by simply having people think about their thinking, metacognition, asking deep questions about their beliefs, leads to less biased thinking. Some questions you might ask someone instead of simply rejecting them out of hand might be:
- “That’s an interesting idea, where did you learn about that?”
- “What other resources have you used to come to that conclusion?”
- “Have you considered the alternative? Why did you reject it?
- “Are there studies that back up that idea? Where are they?”
- “Do you think the source of that information is biased?”
The idea is to get people to actually think about what they are saying. Where do they get their biases from? Chances are, once you get people to think about their thinking, they truly might just begin to look at issues not as black and white, but in shades of gray. And that, is evolution.
Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.
Feel free to leave a comment. Read his previous columns here.