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The Obstacles In Our Way

We have entered an era where “proofiness” trumps all. The statement “I believe …” coming from anyone causes us to stop in our tracks and give added weight to any explanation. It’s as if the belief in something – anything – is more important than the veracity of what the person actually believes. Sarah Palin can say on national television (with a straight face!) and no one in the media even questions her competency to be before a microphone: "Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant – they're quite clear – that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the Ten Commandments.” Somehow, questioning the idiocy of her “belief” is off-limits, so no one in the media does, and this lends more credence to her statement with the listening and watching public, blurring lines between fact and folly.

As a society we are growing steadily more reliant upon belief rather than science or rationality. Our lives in this digital age are gaining speed to the point where depth – of thought, of feeling, of knowledge – is a superfluous luxury that most can’t, or won’t, afford. The absence of this depth invites us to adopt perspectives based upon groups and micro-communities that we self-identify with. Your gun club believes Obamacare is taking away our gun rights (it isn’t) so you believe it. Your church believes that homosexuality is a sin so you parrot the same view without ever having considered the pain your hatred causes (the real sin, no?). Most of us can’t truly call these perspectives our own based upon our knowledge of a given subject. We don’t know enough about them to claim ownership. We are simply along for the ride. Our group believes them so we adopt the belief without looking beneath the surface.

You might ask, How can you say that when virtually everyone has access to the net and can easily find information about any subject they choose? But consider all of the obstacles standing in our way to finding the truth. First, there is the allegiance to our “group”, whatever group or groups it is that we identify with: feminists, conservatives, progressives, or gun owners, you name it. Then there is the fast pace at which things move today. Text messages, email, Facebook and Twitter updates fly at us to the point of distraction on a minute by minute basis. These distractions and their faced-paced movement force most of us to look at things in an abbreviated manner.

How much time do most people spend searching for answers when they are being bombarded with other – seemingly important – requests for their time? And how much time do we spend when our group has already reached some form of quasi-consensus on the subject?

Even if we take the time to search out answers we are still getting tainted data. Most of us will search for things in a way that confirms what we already think or believe is true. For instance, if someone in your gun owners club group told you that the CIA killed JFK and you searched “CIA killed JFK” on Google (Link) you will get thousands of pages showing that JFK was murdered by the CIA, and every link on the first page of the search results supports this. Search, however, for “Who killed JFK” and there isn’t one direct link on the first page that links the CIA to JFK’s murder. (Link) This confirmation bias, slanting your questions (usually without knowing it) to get a desired result, isn’t unusual. We are all guilty of it. Avoiding it requires, first, a knowledge that it exists and, second, the diligence to avoid it.

It is difficult for any of us to jump outside of our own heads to obtain completely accurate answers to questions. Even if we are diligent and ask questions from multiple viewpoints Google still contributes to our confirmation bias. Google’s search algorithm knows our interests and search patterns. It knows our “group” and our history and it feeds us results that are aligned with that history. Our results are more likely to confirm our group’s beliefs than not. Our history is, to some degree, leading our future.

All of these things are simply obstacles to finding the truth. I assume, of course, that the truth is sought. This isn’t always a safe assumption, but most people, when asked, place a great deal of value on truth and honesty.

If 40 percent of the population doesn’t "believe" in evolution or the true age of the earth and universe how can we possibly expect to perform well compared to other, more rational, nations in science and mathematics?

One of the largest obstacles in our search for the truth is our egocentric nature when confronting reality. We tend to defend beliefs that we and our groups hold. We cling to them because we all want to be right about the world. We refuse to bend to the facts and fail to look rationally upon the evidence. Often, these beliefs create boundaries that we live our lives within. They are guideposts and markers that provide a form of definition to our worlds, boundaries we don’t normally pass beyond. But our pre-conceived notions are our biggest obstacles in a quest for truth.

Let me give you two examples that are relevant today because so many of us are clinging to them despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. The first is the belief held by nearly forty percent of us in the United States: that the world is only a few thousand years old. At first glance it would be easy to blame religion as the culprit. But, while religion is certainly wrong, religions don’t make our choices. No religion was ever designed to be a guide on science. No where in the Bible or Koran does it say: “On the eighth day God wrote the manual on biology. And it is complete and the truth. On the ninth day he penned a treatise on astrophysics. Thus we needn’t ever have questions when regarding the heavens.” Only the foolish believe that. (Believing that is still a choice.) Religion doesn’t prohibit our ability to accurately distill information and ferret out the truth. We do that. And when we turn irrational beliefs into guideposts in order to fit into a group we abdicate truth and honesty because our mind can no longer deal with them.

Isn’t it strange that all religions value honesty and truth in their texts and yet demand the suspension of both from their believers? There is no argument regarding the age of the earth and the universe, except maybe down to a few tens of thousands of years. We know the universe is nearly 14 billion years old and that the earth is over four billion years old. The universe is a master storyteller, incredibly consistent, and it has left an enormous amount of clues (empirical evidence) regarding its story. The same is true of the earth. And yet, some religions – that supposedly value truth and honesty – require their believers to lie with regard to these facts.

By setting a biblical age to the earth as a guidepost for our lives forty percent of us have effectively divorced ourselves from rationality. Many who think this way can’t sit down and discuss these things in a rational manner. They can’t have an honest conversation regarding the science – and the consequences of their belief. At some level they know their beliefs are irrational. They know that theirs is a schizophrenic response to the world when they knowingly choose to go against hard evidence and rationality and choose unsupported and empirically impossible beliefs. And yet, in other parts of their lives they rely on the very science that they ridicule and ignore.

Many modern conveniences and medicines are based upon science that directly refutes these beliefs and makes them appear silly. Understanding evolution, for example, has helped us understand disease and why we get sick. Without this understanding cancer would win and antibiotics could never keep up with the changes and adaptations of bacterium and viruses. Religion doesn’t cure cancer, influenza or auto-immune diseases. Nor does God, as should be evident to anyone by now. Medicine does that. And medicine informed by evolution (and necessarily the billions of years it took to get where we are) keeps improving and stays ahead of the game.

We hurt ourselves in other ways when we abandon rationality for irrational beliefs. In the United States our schools used to be ranked first in the world in mathematics and science. Today, we we are so far down the lists (22nd and 30th) that it should be considered a national emergency1. We like to blame our teachers and our schools for this problem. But that is a twisted view. Consider this, if 40 percent of the population doesn’t "believe" in evolution or the true age of the earth and universe how can we possibly expect to perform well compared to other, more rational, nations in science and mathematics? It isn’t possible to compete. Our teachers and our schools should be commended for keeping us where we are in the face of impossible odds.

The obstacle here isn’t just religion, though it does take a big portion of the blame. It’s also our inability to deviate from our isolationist groupthink mentality and from our pre-conceived notions. The big obstacle for each individual is the egocentric nature we take towards the world and our desire that our pre-conceived notions be right. That’s what allows us to abandon rationality, delude ourselves, and take up impossible positions that can never stand over time. We want or need to be right, regardless of the facts.

The second example is climate change. First, let’s get the facts straight. There is no debate that man is causing a rapid warming of the planet. (You could argue whether or not this is a bad thing.) Between the end of 2012 and 2013 there were over 2,200 peer-reviewed papers published regarding climate change. There were 9,136 authors of these papers. There was only 1 that rejected climate change as being caused by man2. Yet many of us want to argue that the science is somehow bogus or wrong.

Most climate deniers are strictly aligned with groups that are motivated by money and the need to maintain the status quo. Of course Exxon and BP deny climate change. They and their industry are major contributors to it. Their business is predicated upon moving forward in the same way as they have for a hundred years. Politicians receive a lot of money from these companies to turn a blind eye to the science.

Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, when speaking about climate change, decided to blame God: “Let’s go back. When you look back in history, and you look at these cycles, you have to come to the conclusion that God is still up there,” he said, on the floor of the senate regarding climate change. But don’t be swayed by his reference to God. Inhofe has taken $1,582,846 from the oil industry and a total of $2,628,367 from all Energy and Natural Resources companies. But he isn’t the most egregious, there were six congressmen who took more money than him last year.

Corporations lie in order to maintain the status quo and their heavily favored situations and status. Those in congress lie because they are paid to. But what of the average guy on the streets who is a climate change denier? There are an enormous number of them. It turns out one of the largest group of “deniers” are among the religious right. They will tell you that the Bible says we are the shepherds of the earth and then turn around and say, as Rick Santorum has, "We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth … for our benefit not for the Earth's benefit.”

Santorum’s egocentrism is dangerous because it is shared by so many. The religious right believes it is their right to trash the planet and ignore the consequences. Somehow, they believe (irrationally) that God will come back and fix things. They believe this because men like James Inhofe and Rick Santorum often place two simple words before their idiotic and dangerous statements. They say “I believe …”. And for some of us that is enough.

1 NPR article on the latest rankings for science and education (Link)

2Climate Change articles published from the end of 2012 through 2013 (Link)

in category Life

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Tags for this article

proofiness, truthiness, egocentric