Philosophy

Why Would We Believe?

By Christopher Kiely
Published April 18, 2011

An essay by Chris Mooney from Mother Jones got me thinking. I encourage you to read the whole thing, although it is a bit long for some people's online consumption. The article claims that we all basically believe what we want to believe regardless of what we are shown to the contrary.

This is not really tough to wrap your brain around. I think a lot of people's anecdotal evidence would support the claim. The open-minded liberal-thinker beholden to empirical evidence is not as common as some "liberal thinkers" would like to believe.

We've all been living in a world where men and women of credentials have been hired to refute the opinions and findings of other men and women of equal credentials for so long that none of it means much of anything any more. The often wide range of opinion (or is it really just lack of scruples?) on the part of scientists, academics, politicians and pundits causes many of us to seek solace in the soothing refrains of our preferred ideologues eager to reinforce our comfortable preconceived notions.

If there is contradictory empirical evidence, lack of evidence, or just plain old lies and spin, we select the information we want to believe and disregard the rest or twist and misinterpret it to support our beliefs. Often we are dealing with issues presented in simplistic formats that are actually much more complicated.

As presented, it can be difficult for us to understand them beyond a gut-feeling of this is wrong and that is right. When knowledgeable parties do comment it often doesn't help as they write and speak to impress rather than to inform. Subject matter experts often make the worst trainers.

Those who resist the disinformation often end up in the clichéd state of "believing none of what we hear and half of what we see." With digital image editing discrediting the "half of what we see" now too. Finding the truth or facts can be like trying to find harmony in a din of dissonance.

Perhaps avoiding the cliques of ideology to limit our exposure to narrowcasted and concentrated ideological messages is part of the solution? As the article explains, we do so love our preconceived notions, especially when reinforced by like minded media channels.

I do not consider myself politically right or left. Politically radical would probably be the best definition. I have some fiscal conservative notions, some libertarian ones and even what many would consider socialist ideals. I rarely find a touchstone of ideology that I fully agree with. Contrarian is probably the most honest label for my hodgepodge of beliefs.

I have not bought into the climate change movement completely. I do not disagree with man having an effect on our climate; but some of the solutions presented by climate change environmentalists, specifically carbon-credit schemes (which I simply view as the commodification of pollution) leave me skeptical of the broader movement.

I prefer the "old" environmental movement of "reduce, reuse, recycle", that existed before environmentalism was boiled down to debating the effects of one gas on our environment and celebrity environmentalists were encouraging me to switch to mercury-filled light bulbs.

So I would like to believe I am difficult to narrowcast, (unless perhaps a 24 hour Lou Reed channel is available). Despite my perceived resilience to being pigeon-holed I can still relate to what the article is saying and will admit some forms of rhetoric provide me with an intellectual gag-response. Neoconservative, trickle-down, market-deregulation-will-save-us-all type nonsense being the most likely contributor of an urge to upchuck. I do slam my mind shut to these notions.

With so much spin, so much concocted confusion, so many contradictory reports from partisan think tanks, less than honest scholars and "lies, damn lies and statistics", is it really any wonder we don't believe science? Is it any wonder some of us believe nothing we hear any more?

I often feel we are fed our world through a cracked camera obscura, where everything is upside down and backwards and we are left to our own (often outmatched) wits to reconstruct the proper image. In a world where temporary facts are used to counter true facts, I guess that feeling is natural.

The article claims, "paradoxically, you don't lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values - so as to give the facts a fighting chance." But I would contend that is why I slam my mind shut to the neoconservative economic blather. It simply does not match my values.

So what is the answer to the discord? Is an enlightened majority position possible? The article claims appealing to values is the way to go. At least in my own case, I have serious doubts about the effectiveness of that approach. What are we to do? Pistols at dawn? Battle of the disputing scientists? Should we all embrace the Missourian attitude of "Show Me"?

Siddhartha Gautama, (the founder of Buddhism) said: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."

I have a feeling he may have been a bit too optimistic about the outcomes of that approach.

Maybe you have to create the value system that allows the acknowledgement of the ideology you wish to encourage? Maybe that's why public education and educators always find themselves under attack?

Ah, who knows... I'm probably just suffering from confirmation bias reasoning.


first published on Christopher's website

Christopher Kiely is a "middle class white guy" who was raised to believe certain things and has watched the world do the complete opposite for 30+ years. He attended Mohawk College in the 1990s, has traveled around some since and now lives with his family in Hamilton.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 19, 2011 at 00:42:11

Brilliant essay. A lot to think about.

In my experience, no matter how finely you subdivide people along lines of belief - ideology, religion, philosophy, musical preference etc - you find equally cutting divisions. It's fractal. The key is finding some way in which we can all still get along, and allow our views to mingle in constructive rather than destructive ways.

Love the bit about environmentalism, BTW.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 19, 2011 at 10:44:40 in reply to Comment 62437

Thanks Undustrial.

I read an article just this morning by David Korten that mentions, at least in very general terms, the key to us "all getting along".

Despite our differences, we all wanted the same things: healthy, happy children, families, and communities living in peace and cooperation in healthy natural environments. - David Korten

I have travelled the world quite extensively over the past 7 years and have made friends in the "four corners of the globe" and I have experienced the same thing Mr. Korten has. Unfortunately I still think differences in values shape opinions on how those things are achievable.

Your point about allowing our views to mingle in constructive ways is a good one. We don't all have to agree on everything. But how can we make those differences of opinion beneficial? Because they can be, after all "Only a fool wants to hear the echo of his own voice."

I'm not sure what the answer is. We need more people to tune into the fact we are all in this together. Cocooning yourself in a homogenous gated community or McMansion in some suburb, sheltered from societies undesirables while you consume to your heart's desire does not make you immune to the perils such a society creates. That can be a tough connection for people to make however. Based on current prominent societal values, there is simply nothing in it for them.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 19, 2011 at 11:53:56 in reply to Comment 62451

Perhaps the biggest problem, in my experience, is when people are set against each other. Whether it's the personal motives of someone in power or the natural evolution of a broad and impersonal institution, it's a staggeringly effective way to rule people. It's also a downright awful way to live.

Gated communities really go to demonstrate how terrified people are today of each other. They're dramatic examples, though, of tensions which play out all through our communities.

Much of it's propaganda, but much of it isn't. Our society has winners and losers. And it's hard to struggle to be a "winner" (or survive otherwise) without starting to believe in some absurd mythology which makes you "different" and paints everyone else as hostile.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted April 19, 2011 at 11:14:52

Great article. And great linked essay, from which I culled these two gems:

"Sure enough, a large number of psychological studies have shown that people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their >preexisting beliefs."

"Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new >evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction."

Currently visiting relatives in the US, I've got examples of this stuff coming at me from every angle.

What's most difficult to process isn't that some of the notions are nothing short of harebrained (they are), but the vehemence with which people cling so tenaciously to what they've formed as their beliefs. Even though really, they haven't formed anything, they've merely glommed onto what makes them feel comfortable.

I'm not interested in political parties. (Mostly because the rhetoric, the jingoism invariably subsumes anything of value being presented...and that the entire 'political process' supersedes everything.) I'm interested in ideas that work. Naturally, this places me in direct opposition to those who cleave to the party mentality, regardless of what party or what issues we're talking about.

I've said it before on my site, but it bears repeating here: Scott London's site is a wonderful resource when it comes to the general topic of engagement, and this essay is a great place to start: http://www.scottlondon.com/articles/ondi...

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 19:39:57 in reply to Comment 62455

Nice link mystoneycreek. I liked this:

In the past, it may have been enough to get by on personal intelligence alone. But it's no longer enough to be brilliant on our own (if such a thing is even possible). Our pressing problems today require that we be smart together, that we harness our best collective thinking and put it to work in the world.

But I'm left with a similar feeling that the MJ article left me with. In general I agree with both of them, but something is missing. Sure appealing to values may be an approach (if we share similar values) and yes dialogue is what is needed. But HOW do we make these things work? Why don't they work?

I feel there is something deeper down preventing us from engaging the way we should. As Undustrial said "It's fractal." We're being pulled apart, segregated, insulated from dissenting opinions and our narcissism reinforced. Yes we need to reverse our direction and start working on dialogue but I think we may need to stop the forward momentum of our current prominent value system first.

I have had some true dialogue as explained by Scott London. A brilliant discussion with Chinese "Party" members in a hotel in Anshan, an impromptu philosophy session at a beach side restaurant in Balikpapan with Indonesian Muslims and a Japanese friend and the creation of a beer-soaked sustainable-future-manifesto by a bunch of mining professionals in Amsterdam. They were wonderful moments indeed!

Is it coincidence they all occurred outside North America with non-North Americans?

Comment edited by Kiely on 2011-04-20 19:42:02

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2011 at 00:35:50 in reply to Comment 62523

I really liked the Scott London article, especially his point-by-point description of dialogue. As he notes, though, dialogue needs to be separated from decision-making. That requires its own set of special rules, and and has a lot to do with how we all get along (or don't).

With collective decision-making, a special set of conditions arise. A very good idea can quickly turn into a very bad policy or law. This may have nothing to do with the substance of the law itself, and everything to do with who wrote it and how it's being enforced. It happens in workplaces, politics, even in informal social hierarchies.

When people begin to feel that the decision-making which affects their lives does not reflect their views or interests, a deep sense of alienation grows. And as both those in power and those under them begin to do as they wish and view each other with suspicion. Input diminishes as leaders begin to focus on compliance rather than effective governance, and the people begin to focus more with "getting away with things" and less with being involved in the process.

As far as views and beliefs go, far too much of our antagonism relates to how centralized our decision-making has become. If fighting for our beliefs means that we must "win" power and enforce them on everyone else, then everyone is at odds.

What's the solution? There isn't one. There's no perfect utopian model we can all sign up for. Just a long process of democratic engagement to create a tolerable world together. The only way it will really "work", and the only way people will really want to join is if it respects their freedom and input as well.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2011 at 10:43:42 in reply to Comment 62538

What's the solution? There isn't one. There's no perfect utopian model we can all sign up for. Just a long process of democratic engagement to create a tolerable world together. The only way it will really "work", and the only way people will really want to join is if it respects their freedom and input as well.

I don't believe we've done more than scratch the surface of democratic engagement, changing the way we've had things for the longest time. The landscape is changing, even though it might not be readily apparent to the casual observer. (We're in a 'gestation' phase, maybe?)

I don't believe the paradigm we've been content with actually works. It's more that we've become inured to its flaws and ambivalence has numbed us.

I see the only aspect of the design that can effect the change we require is us. What did the man sing?

'Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight...'

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 21, 2011 at 12:59:03 in reply to Comment 62548

The landscape is changing...

I agree.

I don't believe the paradigm we've been content with actually works.

It works in theory ; )

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2011 at 12:39:03 in reply to Comment 62548

Gotta agree with everything there. I have a lot of faith in people, but nearly none in our governments.

Things are changing, though. People are rising up around the world and established opposition parties are being left scratching their heads.

I suspect that in the end, changes for the better will come, as always, in spite of our government and not as a result of it. But only if a set of changes come along which people can really believe in.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2011 at 16:35:03 in reply to Comment 62554

I suspect that in the end, changes for the better will come, as always, in spite of our government and not as a result of it. But only if a set of changes come along which people can really believe in.

Abrogation.

Abrogation of (unspoken and unacknowledged) responsibilities within the governance compact. On our parts.

This may be at the heart of the matter.

As I've suggested on my site, we the people are the 'employers'. The politicians/public servants are the 'employees'. It's hilarious that a) we assume that they'll rise to the occasion and get the job done, and b) we hand them the keys to the 'business' and don't really bother checking in over the ensuing four years.

Nobody decided that we had to have a 'hands-off' approach to our governance. We've just gone along with it.

But I'll pose this question: do you really believe that in this age of social media, of open data, of 24/7 news, with acesss to information previously unimaginable that it's appropriate or even likely that this paradigm of ours will continue?

It's funny; people look to the recent uprisings towards democracy in the Middle East as being the revolutions of the 21st century. I believe that ours is bound to be just as fundamental...except it's going to be seen over time, hardly recognized as it unfolds.

And it's being documented on sites such as RTH.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2011-04-21 16:36:33

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2011 at 12:17:03 in reply to Comment 62562

I guess the question is, if the Canadian public decided on a different system, rather than just a different ruling party, how would the government respond? If this was clear - widespread, definable, and supported by an overwhelming majority of the public, would we be allowed to do it?

I've been tear-gassed enough times to suspect it won't be quite that simple.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2011 at 06:27:41 in reply to Comment 62619

I think the thing to remember when considering what I've suggested is that I'm not referring to a situation akin to what's been covered in the news. I'm not talking about a 'tipping point' interlude, an incident, a 'moment in time'. I'm talking about something far less dramatic, one that doesn't involve conflict or tear gas. I don't believe the changes that await us will unfold that way.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 23, 2011 at 13:44:13 in reply to Comment 62619

how would the government respond?

Not just our government but the G8/G20 governments.

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2011 at 20:37:42

Nice work Kiely in bringing these thoughts together.

I'm curious, and I think it's related to your search, if anyone can give us a sense of how long it takes to change one's mind on an issue. For me, it's usually measured in decades but perhaps it's just a case of the old witticism:

If you aren't a communist at 20, you have no heart, if you aren't a capitalist at 40, you have no head.

Perhaps for 60 we could add something about wisdom or compassion or serenity - well, maybe serenity is for 80!

another favourite:

You aren't what you think you are, but what you think, you are.

I voted for Trudeau and for free trade. I'm now doing penance!

On the first, on the human side, it is a question of understanding there are sharp immutable incompatibilities, despite humanist co-operative tendencies, that we ignore to our ultimate sorrow.

On the second, the more our thinking 'follows the money', the closer we can come to understanding reality. Cynical though that may be on so many fronts.

Cheers, Bob

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2011 at 12:45:27 in reply to Comment 62529

Most communists I know are well over fifty.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 21:39:48

I'm curious, and I think it's related to your search, if anyone can give us a sense of how long it takes to change one's mind on an issue. For me, it's usually measured in decades but perhaps it's just a case of the old witticism:

If you aren't a communist at 20, you have no heart, if you aren't a capitalist at 40, you have no head.

Hey Bob!

I don't know if anyone can answer that for you. I think you're on the right track by simply acknowledging your own change. It will be different for all of us.

I can only do the same. In my case the witticism is more accurate in reverse. I have had some profound experiences over the past 10 years. I don't mean profound in an "Oooh I'm so profound" way, but to me personally they were. I would hope we have all had those experiences. Anyway, those experiences have radically changed what I believe and understand about the world we live in.

But if people don't have those experiences. If they grow up uneducated in homogenous and indoctrinated communities they can die ignorant… or worse.

I would also change that witticism to "...if you aren't a capitalist by 40, you have no survival instinct." For a lot of people that is the reality.

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