Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Just the facts, ma'am.

When I run across the same idea from two different respected sources in the same day, I have to figure that the universe is trying to tell me something.

First, this morning, I read Leonard Pitts' column. Pitts was decrying the fact that, as he stated it, we have become "a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic. alienated from even objective truth."

We are not persuaded by facts and by objective evidence. We reject any evidence that conflicts with our own preconceived ideas. We believe what we want to believe and anything that does not validate our beliefs is automatically rejected.

The sad thing is that a people who reject critical thinking and who refuse to consider any alternative evidence or ideas are doomed. Just because you refuse to believe that a brick wall is a brick wall does not make the wall cease to exist, as you will discover when you walk into it.

That column gave me quite a bit to think about, and then, this afternoon, I happened to be in the car as All Things Considered was on NPR and I heard about the Cultural Cognition Project, a group of scholars who study how cultural values shape public perceptions and policy beliefs.

The social scientists involved in this project have conducted experiments in which their subjects are asked to describe their cultural beliefs and then they are presented with some objective scientific facts. They are then asked to interpret or draw conclusions about these facts. The scientists found that the prestated values of the subjects significantly affected the way they interpreted the "facts."

As one of the scientists, Don Braman, stated, "People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view. It doesn't matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information."

Or as Leonard Pitts might say, the facts don't matter. The only things that matter are our beliefs, i.e., our preconceived ideas.

Unless we can learn to keep an open mind and think more critically about things, we may, in fact, be doomed as a people. Yes, I think maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. I hope that I am open enough to accept it.

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