On bad knowledge…
Sometimes one side of an argument is just plain wrong. We can prove it with data, we can back it up with examples, we can demonstrate it with facts, yet somehow, the argument continues.
Take flat earthers. If you have missed this cultural phenomenon, I’m sorry to break it to you, but despite hundreds of years of science, there is a group of several thousand people who insist that the earth is flat.
This group has had a documentary made about it, in which they conducted fairly objective studies to prove that the earth is flat. Yet, even when the studies consistently showed that the earth was round, and their findings correlated perfectly with a round earth, they found ways to disagree with the findings. They found ways to believe what they felt as true in the face of all knowledge to the contrary.
The flat earthers are a somewhat extreme and obvious example of something that humans do on a near-constant basis. We refuse to relearn old paradigms, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Many Conservatives still say that climate change is pseudoscience or they parse out a distinction between natural climate change and human’s influence on the warming planet.
To make it more personal, a cheating spouse will be forgiven for his or her transgressions, or the spouse will deny any infidelity out of hand.
There are a number of idioms that address this, not least of which is the “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil,” referenced in our iconic monkeys at the start of the post. “Ignorance is bliss.” “Knowledge is suffering.” “They who have nothing to trouble them will be troubled at nothing…”
There’s a surprising tradition of commenting about the pain introduced by new knowledge, especially when it comes in the face of existing knowledge. Yet there’s a profound dichotomy here. The scientific method has a culture of criticism. It is very good at allowing new knowledge to supersede old, worse explanations. Other forms of knowledge, though, devolve into argument and belief sets with our liberal arts educations predisposing us to take both sides as valid and not to judge another’s culture.
To further illustrate the point, take this allegory from David Foster Wallace:
There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer.
And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’”
And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.”
The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”
David Foster Wallace’s analysis on this is also spot-on for the point I’m making here:
Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice.
Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.
It is this devotion to an idea that I’m talking about. It is the concept that we are so frightened by our own immense wrongness that we refuse to accept new facts, even when they’re overwhelming…
But that doesn’t get to everything, to me, because it doesn’t center in on “why.” Why is it that people will fight tooth and nail for their misguided, or just plain wrong belief set?
I believe it is because we need so deeply a community that we’re willing to sacrifice nearly everything else to hold onto it. Over the past several decades, study after study has shown how lonely humans are becoming in our ever more connected world that we need something fundamental, something bigger than ourselves to believe in. And there is no more powerful force to codify and unite a group than being attacked for a set of beliefs.
Let’s head back to the flat earthers as an example. Sure, everything says that their beliefs are complete nonsense. We, as Neil Degrasse Tyson mentioned in the video above, have photographic, actual proof from outer space that the earth is a sphere. But if an idea unites me with a community, I am willing to defend the idea not for the worthiness of the idea, but for the bonds that I share among the community. The more outrageous the idea, the more attacked I am for it, the stronger my ties to the community become.
This is played out in many examples, not least of which are racist organizations that reject the biological proof that all humans are made equal, and it’s possible, in fact likely, that a significant percentage of a minority group is more capable than the members of an aforementioned racist group.
On an individual basis, I can reject new information or adhere to it, depending on how I feel about the information or the explanation or the facts. It’s a practical thing to understand one’s own sense of right and wrong — it certainly makes picking a car or a spouse much easier. And most of the things that we believe are completely benign. It does not impact the fate of the human species if I believe that every time I wear a Red Wings jersey, my team has a bit more magical juju for the big game. Or that every time I wash it, the juju is essentially reset in a strange cosmic way that involves soap.
Yet still, a lot of beliefs are not benign. They are destructive and completely at odds with factual evidence. I’m talking about denying climate change or believing homosexuality is a hell worthy trespass or thinking that a race is inferior because of a difference in pigmentation or birth location or thinking that women are lesser than, worse than or predestined to a life different from men.
And still, they persist. They persist not because we are incapable of changing our minds or belief sets, but because we are too frightened to leave our tribes. They persist because we allow others to define us instead of seeking knowledge and truth for ourselves. They persist because we’re a lonely community, desperate for connection in this world.
We can, and should, do more to expand our communities — to create an American story that encompasses everyone. But, then maybe that will be the outcome of the destructive tendencies of the past generation. Regardless, that’s for another post.