How we know what we know: It’s not a matter of brains

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately on the Facebook pages of my U.S. Congressman and my State Representative. I realize that Mr. Benishek and Mr. Foster probably don’t ever really log on to their pages and that their staffs post something about all the great things their bosses are doing, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying to get my message across to them. If nothing else, there’s a chance that other people in the districts can see the challenges I pose to these two Republicans and engage in dialogue that might generate some buzz and maybe some introspection by those in power.

Occasionally you run into someone from the opposing side who is both willing and able to look at an issue and respond in a manner which benefits everyone who reads it, including me. If nothing else, potential weaknesses in my arguments are raised and I have a chance to spend time reading and rethinking my stands. It’s not that I am likely to dramatically change my stand on the major issues, but I do learn a lot about why people with differing views think the way they do. This helps me find areas of agreement and it helps me develop more nuanced arguments the next time I get involved in the discussion.

But these sorts of interactions are rare. Far too many people respond to positions with which they disagree with name calling, outrageous claims, personal attacks, and a spewing of rhetoric that doesn’t help anyone understand anything. Post after post repeats several common themes and I got to wondering how it is people have come to believe these things and what makes them so comfortable that their claims are valid. At times it is easy to laugh at some of the paranoid rantings and dismiss them as something someone at Fox News dreamt up and the person is simply repeating. We tend to think of the people who make these claims as simple minded or as flat out stupid.

Making these sorts of assumptions, however, is too easy and offers no hope to engage the opposition in any meaningful discussion. Frankly, there are times when the rantings are so bizarre that it’s unlikely there will be any meaningful discussion anyway. Yet it seems to me that if we could gain some understanding of how people come to accept points of view that seem so outlandish to us, we might have a shot at breaking the vicious cycle of name calling and vitriol.

In essence, I am curious about the epistemology of those who seem so absolutely certain of things which I find too bizarre to even discuss. Here is a partial list of things that you can find on Mr. Benishek and Mr. Foster’s Facebook pages:

1) President Obama wants to confiscate weapons from citizens.
2) President Obama is a traitor, guilty of treason, and/or is trying to become a king. At stake is the very survival of our Constitution.
3) President Obama is a Muslim.
4) President Obama is a Communist/Fascist/Socialist and anyone who supports the President is a Communist/Fascist/Socialist.
5) President Obama was not born in the United States.
6) Democrats want to tax everyone as much as they can and spend money without any restraint.
7) Any limit on access to any gun is a violation of the Second Amendment.
8) It’s a proven fact that more guns means less crime except in Chicago where more gun control means more guns which means more crime. (Actually I have a really hard time following this line, but it shows up in post after post.)
9) Roe vs. Wade opened the door to abortion in this country and that prior to Roe vs. Wade women in this country were not having abortions. Therefore overturning Roe vs. Wade will end abortions.
10) Life begins at conception.
11) A large percentage of the US budget is spent on foreign aid and welfare.
12) The problem in this country is we’ve created programs to which people feel entitled. Entitlements are welfare.
13) Raising the debt ceiling means the government is going more into debt.

It’s not my purpose to look at all these claims and try to make an argument as to why they are all false, bizarre, and reflect poorly on those who post them. I believe those three things, but I don’t have the capacity in this article to take on all thirteen points. Rather I am trying to get a handle on WHY people believe this stuff and why do they seem so unwilling to engage in genuine discussions. Why do so many people making these claims resort to name calling the moment their claims are challenged?

Epistemology is pretty tricky. It’s the process of learning how we know that we know something. Questions in epistemology center around knowledge and justification of knowledge and it’s fairly easy to get caught up in some pretty twisted mind games sorting it all out. Whether we know it or not, however, we all engage in this process until it becomes clear enough to ourselves that we have found something we can believe to be true.

With many things it’s convenient and expedient to believe what we’re told on a daily basis. Our education system sadly continues to encourage students to simply believe what they’re told or what they’ve read because someday soon it’s going to be on some standardized test. The pressure to excel on these tests squeezes out opportunities to do some real thinking because real thinking is hard to bubble in with a No. 2 pencil. So it’s no surprise that many people accept without reservation many things they hear on radio or see on television. With massive amounts of information hitting our brains everyday from the print and electronic media, the internet, and social networks, there’s really no time to sort it all out.

The assumption (which is tragically faulty) is that the people putting out the news or creating commentaries, or posting things on Facebook have already done the work to find the truth. Why take the time to figure out if any of this stuff is true when that time could be better spent “learning” new things?

Ultimately, we far too often attribute the bizarre claims as coming from the mouths (or fingertips) of stupid people. But this is unfair and far too simple. These people are not necessarily stupid, but they most certainly are lazy. All of the complexity of epistemology can be summed up in a very simple adage I have stolen from Syndey Harris, a long ago deceased newspaper columnist who I used to read regularly as a teenager and beyond. Harris used to produce columns that were nothing more than a series of very short observations. Here’s a few I found in a quick search today:

“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.”

“When I hear somebody sigh ‘Life is hard,’ I am always tempted to ask, ‘Compared to what?’”

“Knowledge fills a large brain; it merely inflates a small one.”

You get the idea. A couple of times a week his column would appear in syndication across the country. When he died in 1986 I remember thinking that the paper would never be the same because Harris always gave you something to think about.

Harris understood epistemology and summed it up in this short phrase I read over forty years ago. It seems to precisely explain how people can come to say and post things that run counter to reality and to the abundant evidence swirling around us all. Harris simply said: “The facts begin when the investigation ends.”

Once you stop questioning something, you accept it as truth. If your questioning starts and ends with something you heard on the radio or saw on television, then you’re stuck repeating something that very few other people may think is true because they took the time to check it out. Harris’ “investigation” can last a couple of seconds, or it can take a lifetime. But once we end it, we have settled on the “truth.”

So if there is to be a genuine discourse en route to some sort of compromise on such issues as abortion, gun control, government spending, etc., it has to start with people being more willing to extend the investigation long enough to consider whether something they’ve been told is a bunch of hooey. Until then, the best defense to being challenged will remain name calling and vitriol. I’m sure Sydney Harris would have some way to call this stupid without stooping to using such a word.


One Comment on “How we know what we know: It’s not a matter of brains”

  1. Angie February 2, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    As someone who has a bit of an obsession with reading Conservative Facebook group pages, one thing I see brought up often is the phrase “do the research”. This is repeated right after someone claims some extreme tyrannical idea about the current administration. Many of these posters believe that anyone who doesn’t believe the conspiracy theory they are promoting are being blinded by the news media. It makes you wonder what “research” they want you to do.
    An argument ‘win’ is for someone to claim that if you do the right research you will realize you have been brainwashed. What really astounds me with these posts is that many times they don’t give citations or even explain how they reached these conclusions. So instead I immediately conclude that the poster is an idiot instead of understanding how they logically reached that point and maybe even seeing some truth or common ground in their argument.

    Anyway, I read all of your posts and enjoyed them. Keep up the solid work. 

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