As the world becomes more polarized, we are being faced with an increasing number of subjective or biased perspectives. While it is always true that any statement that a person makes will be, by definition, subjective, it is not always true that these subjective statements will fail to be objective. The truth is the truth, so regardless of someone’s lived experience or pre-existing bias, if they speak the truth, their subjective statements can be viewed as objectively true. Facts used to be very important and people used to pride themselves on speaking only the things that they knew were true and would take steps to avoid saying things that they knew were not false or to find out what the truth was before they said anything. “I don’t know” was not a badge of shame because it was assumed that people wouldn’t know everything and that was fine.
Things have changed recently with the propagation of the Internet for three big reasons. The first reason is because almost all of the information that is known to humanity has been posted to the Internet. With the exception of state secrets and proprietary information, knowledge can be tracked down and consumed when someone is willing to take the time to find it. The post Google Expert – Noun? Not Verb? – Second Run At It makes reference to this and points out some of the things that can go wrong when someone doesn’t take the time to gather enough information to provide a complete picture of what is going on.
This takes us to the second and third big reasons why the truth is not the imperative that it used to be. These two are related, and they are a consequence of our aversion to experiencing discomfort. In order to actually gain knowledge and eventually a clear understanding of the truth about something, we need to consume a lot of information and this will include an abundance of information that doesn’t align with our world view. Remember that we are seeking to become subjectively objective which means that we will need to consume information that doesn’t directly map onto our life experience and that may be the exact opposite of it. Human beings place a much higher value on the things that they have experienced and on the things that they have known for a long time. This basically means that we are inclined to place a greater weight on our existing knowledge than on something new. This won’t matter much when the new information supports what we already believe and it will quickly be integrated and stored into long term memory.
However, when faced with information that is incompatible with our world view, we will experience discomfort. The exact source of this discomfort is not entirely clear but it probably has something to do with the fact that anything that challenges our world view actually causes us to become uncertain about the future given that our ability to make accurate predictions about what might happen is reduced. This discomfort serves as a disincentive for both the accepting of the conflicting information as fact and in seeking out more information; in theory there is a disincentive for surfacing information that is in conflict with what is already known and assumed to be true, but since there is no guarantee that any piece of new information will confirm what is already known, the pain associated with exposure to conflicting information serves to close a person down to ALL information.
So while the Internet represents the opportunity to gain knowledge, wisdom, and the truth about almost any subject, it is also a source of discomfort when new information does not align with existing understandings. This is the source of the third problem the Internet has caused when it comes to becoming a dogmatic broker of the truth. There is just so much information out there that it is impossible, without putting in deliberate effort, to get a balanced exposure to allow for a comprehensive synthesis of the truth. Unless you are willing to endure and in fact set about to experience the discomfort of being challenged by things that do not align with your present world view you can spend all of your time consuming things that actually agree with your point of view.
This is where we are today. We have access to all of the world’s knowledge. But the world is complicated and it takes a lot of effort and time to learn enough to actually know what the truth is. Every step along the way will be a challenge because as we integrate new information, we become certain about its accuracy, which will make the new piece of information increasingly harder to accept because as we move forward towards wisdom we track in on more and more of the exceptions to the rule. Since each one of these exceptions will trigger feelings of uncertainty, each one of them serves as a type of punishment for continuing along on the journey. The opposite feeling as available when we consume something that aligns with our world view, and the Internet is absolutely stuffed with sources that support anything as being the truth.
It is the relationship our brain has with these sources that is actually the problem with seeking out the truth. On one side we have sources that will lead us towards the truth because they present a part of the picture that we do not know yet, but consuming these things hurts. On the other side we have sources that support our existing view and are therefore rewarding to consume. Our brain is innately programmed to seek out information that confirms what we already know and to avoid things that question it. If you want to feel good, you’re going to avoid the things that challenge you, and this means you are not going to be putting in the work that would move you towards knowing the truth.
This is the source and nature of the confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that sees us seeking out sources that agree with what we believe and to be overly critical about sources that do not confirm what we already know to be true in order to dismiss them as being invalid.
All of this is very interesting and worth knowing, but for the purposes of this post it is just set-up for what comes next. How do we identify when this cognitive bias is occurring and is there any way to identify when we have accidentally tracked into something that serves only to confirm what we already believe? The word “accidentally” is very important in the previous sentence because it implies that you are an honest operator who is motivated to become a broker of truth for its own sake. If you are not interested in the truth or are deliberately choosing to consume something that you know or have reason to believe is biased or serves only to support your existing point of view, you have not accidentally tracked in on anything. In this case you either know better or simply do not care about cognitive bias. With those who know better, hopefully you are consuming it for the sake of balance and NOT because it feels good to have your opinion validated over and over again. With those who do not care, as you were.
The method outlined below for testing whether or not you are committing the confirmation bias, works most effectively when dealing with issues that have a subject that is a real person. This person can either be the person who is saying the thing or they can be the person that the thing is being said about. Given that most things are either written by people or are about people, this method can be used with almost everything.
The only other criteria that will need to be satisfied is that you will need to have a good mental idea about two other people or a clear understanding of two other subjects. The two people or subjects will need to be one that you like and agree with and one that you do not like and do not agree with. For example, if you are someone who is left leaning politically, you will need to have a strong right leaning subject – a person or group and if you are right leaning you will need to have a person or subject that is left leaning. You will need to have two, one on the right and one on the left in the event that you are neutral.
Once all of these conditions are met, you go about your life consuming whatever it is you choose waiting for a chance to try this method out. The moment you find yourself agreeing strongly with what you read or hear or strongly disagreeing with it, you pause for a moment and then switch out the subject and replace them with the one you have thought-up and reconsider your feelings had this person said it or had the thing been said about this person. Take a moment to allow your feelings to surface and then compare these feelings to the ones that you had before. It’s difficult to say what you are looking for but when it happens you’ll be aware that something very valuable has been revealed.
The reality of life is that the truth is the truth regardless of who says it. A factual statement should not be any more or less believable when said by or about someone you like or dislike.
I’m not a big fan of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He’s a little more to the left than I land politically and the job of being the leader of a country is impossible; I wasn’t a fan of Stephen Harper either, Canada’s last PM, I thought Obama was a very good statesman but not entirely aligned with my view of how the world should be, I can’t understand what Trump is talking about most of the time but accept that he’s connecting with people in a way that allows them to feel heard and that some of his policies are exactly what are needed to accomplish what he’s trying to do. So there are four people, one very right, one middle right, one middle left and one more to the left. When I am considering something someone is saying about a Justin Trudeau or Trump policy and I’m not sure if my thoughts and feelings about it are making sense, I substitute one of the other names in, or their political party and take another run at it to see what my brain comes up with.
If we take the US trade war with China as an example, it’s clear that this is Trump’s trade war given that Obama didn’t take the same actions as Trump and that Canada has more or less regarded China as a trading partner in good standing for a long time. So consider the tweets:
Donald J. Trump
Verified account @realDonaldTrump
May 14, 2019 06:16:58 AM
When the time is right we will make a deal with China. My respect and friendship with President Xi is unlimited but, as I have told him many times before, this must be a great deal for the United States or it just doesn’t make any sense. We have to be allowed to make up some….
.…. of the tremendous ground we have lost to China on Trade since the ridiculous one sided formation of the WTO. It will all happen, and much faster than people think!
When I try-on Obama saying something like that, I notice a few things. The first is that I am a lot less dismissive of it and I try to understand what it might possibly mean. Specifically, what is in the statement that is true that I am not willing to consider when it comes from Trump. This makes me aware that I do not take any time to consider what Trump says because I don’t have an easy time understanding it. These tweets are not hard to understand and I do not disagree with the main thrust of what he’s saying, although I do not believe that it is the fault of the WTO or that China has set about to hurt the US through their trade actions. It’s just a difference in opinion. He is right to suggest that, when compared to before China become a part of the WTO in 2001, there has been a change in the nature and size of the trading relationship between the US and the world and China and the world. But of course this happened, things change over the period of almost 20 years.
The consequence of this exercise is that I realize that I don’t really spend much time considering Trumps tweets and that I have to accept that he is at the very least, latching onto a valid point to help sell or move his message. And this is where it seems to go off the rails. The next sentence “… the ridiculous one sided formation of the WTO” would not have been spoken by Obama, or either one of the Canadian PMs mentioned above. It uses victim language that places the US on one side and at least China on the other. I accept that Trump cares only about the US but his words read as though the world is a massive zero sum contest and that China gaining MUST be a US loss and therefore something that needs to be corrected.
And this leads me to my final conclusion. Trump’s Twitter account is a very subjective and biased source of information. It makes sense for me to consume it from time to time so that I can get some insight into what he is thinking, but the act of changing the subjects proves it to be a biased source simply because other world leaders, even those on the right, would be very unlikely to say many of the things that he says. It is not the truth and is therefore not objective in spite of the fact that some of what it contains can be supported by evidence.
Try it out. Pick your people / subjects and consider the following quote:
“Who cares about winning? We should focus on serving.”
Imagined as something Trump said makes me laugh. The only context that allows it to make sense is in a legal sense as in someone being served papers and paying a settlement to avoid trial and therefore the chances of losing.
Imagined as the other three people and I have no difficulty believing that any one of them could have made the statement. All three of these leaders seemed to have a “together we can do it” type of approach to their jobs. It seems more probable that it was something that Obama or Justin Trudeau said than Stephen Harper, given that it isn’t how he spoke vs. how he acted.
It is a statement that I don’t have any problems getting behind in terms of believing that it is true and that it represents a better approach to living than win at all costs. This is the primary reason why it I have such difficulty pretending that Trump said it. He seems to care more about getting what he wants, and while he may have an honest belief that what is good for him is also good for the country, he doesn’t even play lips service to the notion that serving is more important than winning let alone considering the possibility that winning doesn’t matter at all if people are suffering.
It was a Trudeau quote.
Two things need to be said here. The first is that with very polarized statements or very polarized subject-people it can be extremely tough to run the mental process of considering the statement from the opposite point of view. That’s understandable but no reason to avoid putting in the effort. In fact, it’s just more evidence to validate that there is a real need to put in the effort to try it out because any failure to do so will result in the ignoring of valuable information and knowledge. While it does make sense to consider the source of any statements to uncover any potential conflicts of interest that they may have, a conflict of interest does not necessarily mean that the statement is false. People who know what they are talking about or who are experts in an area may have positioned themselves to benefit from the truth simply because they understand the subject well enough to make a living doing the right thing. In these cases, disregarding what they say for the sole reason that they stand to benefit from having you believe it will be a mistake.
Recently we had a water pipe burst due to the extremely cold weather. It was annoying, but not really a surprise. We had been planning on replacing the pipes and to move them away from the outside walls and closer to the middle of the house. When the plumber came to deal with the frozen pipe he made the decision to cap it and shut down the water to that area of the building. This didn’t matter much because the pipe brought water to a second bathroom that we could go without using for a while. The pipes were copper so he cut them and soldered them and that allowed us to turn the water back on in the rest of the house.
I asked him about moving all of the pipes and he wrote-up a quote. He was going to use PEX which is plastic as opposed to copper. When I asked him why, he told me that PEX was cheaper to buy and much faster to install, meaning that they would be able to complete the job in a day vs. two or three days. The quote was for the job as opposed to time and materials meaning that the faster they do it, the more money they make. This forced me to consider things from a different point of view so I asked him about the benefits of PEX over copper. He said that he’d do whichever I asked for but that PEX was a better choice in this situation because it can expand slightly and this meant it was more resilient than copper in the event that the pipe temperature dropped below freezing. This mattered because the building that was getting the work done is prone to the occasional power failure which shuts down the HVAC system given that the gas furnace won’t turn on unless air can be circulated through the heat exchanger. If we used copper and there was a power failure, there was a chance that the internal temperature of the building would drop below freezing which could result in ruptured pipes. They would be easier to fix because they would no longer be buried in the walls, but that doesn’t matter very much when water flooding into the basement. PEX is not better than copper and it can still rupture, but for our purposes it is the better product to use.
Before we agreed to get the work done, we asked a couple of home inspectors what they would do in our situation. These people had nothing to gain from the decision we made and were, for all intents and purposes, objective. While they we more confident with copper given how long it has been the standard way of doing things and PEX is about 2 decades old meaning the first generation of fittings are starting to fail, they agreed with the plumbers rationale for suggesting PEX. Even if the plumber stood to gain from using it instead of copper, it was the correct solution in this case. This is more or less the same thing as switching the subject – different subject-people said the same thing lending support to the plumber’s statements.
This means, in general, a conflict of interest is NOT necessarily a show stopper when it comes to listening to what people have to say. While it can serve as an incentive to have them lie or to have an extremely biased point of view, an expert is going to have figured out how to benefit from telling the truth.
This brings us to the second thing that needs to be said. Your goal is, or at least it should be, to uncover and learn the truth. This usually means doing a lot of work because the world is complicated and things are not always as they appear to be or how you believe them to be. By switching subjects, you are doing a type of dialectic analysis that will only help to clear the fog surrounding an issue. Even if it turns out that your initial assessment was correct, the exercise of considering things from a different point of view will reveal information that you didn’t have before. Worst case is that you gain a greater insight into why something is the way it is. Best case is that you collect more information about the subject and this will help to generate a more complete understanding. No matter what way it turns out, taking the time and putting in the effort to switch the subject will go a long way in helping you uncover an unconscious cognitive biases and allow you to think about something more objectively.
Very few human beings think in completely logical and objective ways so it is safe to assume that there is something biased about your thinking and to take some steps to prevent this from taking an unnecessary toll on your life. To this end, if you find yourself dismissing something you hear simply because of the source, or accepting something because of its source, switch the subject to the opposite type of person and see it you would make the same decision. If you would, great, you are probably thinking clearly. But if doing this changes things at all, step back and reassess what is going on. Take the time to think things through and to find out what exactly is fueling your biased decision making.