Beyond Truth

Humans are deeply flawed. We may well have it in our heads that you we’re right, but the more scientific evidence any of us have for our beliefs, the more likely it is we are polarized on a given issue.

Why? “Biased assimilation”

Think I’m wrong on a given matter? Really wrong, and it makes you wonder how I / they / he / she / X party could be so off base? This graph explains:

knowledge polarity

A search for truth is a necessity, but rarely convinces anyone with opposing views.

This graph reflects recent work by behavioral economist Dan Kahan, who has spent north of a decade studying rational thought as reconciled with partisan beliefs. He summarizes this as “People will selectively credit and discredit information in patterns that reflect their commitment to certain values.”

You do it too. So do I.

Some of our most fiercely held beliefs may well be accurate, though we dismiss evidence to the contrary. There’s a silver lining, however: curiosity, and listening to someone with an opposing view and an open mind.

The recent election was clear evidence of how each of us live in bubbles over time, surrounded by whatever we have clicked on the most, and by people much like ourselves. We then become successively convinced and entrenched in our world-views.

Solution? More time over a beer.

Obama, whom I’ll miss, was wise to invite two gentlemen who’d argued to the white house for a beer. Face to face, we tend to be a bit more polite, more understanding, and have an inkling to find common ground. This desire to connect even without curiosity can bring healthy debate and at the very least finding underlying issues. The men set aside their differences and moved on.

Online, we’re surrounded by our echo chambers, but to some degree wearing masks of technology, making us a bit less human, less understanding, and more prone to defending a worldview that our peers (social connections) will agree with and relate to.

I do think issues are often loaded, psychologically motivated. Henry Ford famously quoted that had he asked customers what they’d wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.

People’s answers aren’t to be taken literally necessarily, but in person, we’re more likely to understand a more nuanced view. The real answer is there – to travel and arrive faster – it’s just buried.

In high school a wise colleague gave me an analogy I’ve held on to, which is that truth is like a fire. Standing in a single place gives you just a single view of that fire, and until you’ve considered many different perspectives only then does one have a better – but still not comprehensive – idea of what a fire is.

We need to be challenged. We need to go beyond “truth” and whatever we’ve convinced ourselves, for the sake of insight and our own humanity.