OPINION – I don’t care if they’re talking about my opinion or if they are siding with me, it drives me crazy when I’m having a discussion with someone and they say to me, “I just don’t see how any intelligent person can possibly think that way.”
Analyzing a 9/11 conspiracy theory
About two years ago I was sitting in a classroom at Southern Utah University waiting for my heat transfer professor to arrive. I was ready to hand in my homework and was hoping that I’d be able to understand whatever he was about to teach us. Our professor burst in the door, much more excited than usual.
He had just learned about the conspiracy theory that on 9/11 those two planes could not have caused those three buildings to collapse and especially not in the manner that they collapsed.
After looking briefly into the theory he determined that his young engineering students should be able to study the theory, run some calculations, and either prove or disprove the theory.
The day the project was due we discussed amongst ourselves what we had all found. It turned out that about half of the class found the theory to be true and about half the class found the theory to be false. At first, I was dumbfounded to think that half of the class had done the math wrong and I wondered if I had also done it wrong. When our professor arrived we discussed our findings. To my further shock, our professor was not able to sort through the mess either, and the problem wasn’t the math.
Turns out there are conflicting reports with conflicting data circulating around the internet. In some cases groups threw in extra, unnecessary, and irrelevant data which skews the results when it’s included. Other groups would apply inappropriate assumptions or always round in the right direction to give the result they wanted to get. In other cases, two different sources would give different numbers for the same raw data.
No matter how you sliced it, we were taking something that had a definitive answer: Either those buildings could have been demolished using just planes; or, they couldn’t have been demolished using just planes. But we were finding arguments which appeared to prove that both were true.
Why we pick the news we do
During my second year of college I took a class called Introduction to Mass Media. We covered a lot of material that semester and it was really enlightening, but I’ll never forget the day a light turned on in my mind.
We were discussing the various sources of news – especially political news. My professor said that in today’s world we have access to hundreds of sources of news, and yet everyone seems to narrow it down to only about two or three sources. As I considered why that might be the case I thought maybe it was just familiarity or habit. Then he explained that even though it makes sense that we’d try to find sources that would give us the least biased information that’s not what we do. Instead we poke around until we find a source that supports or agrees with what we already think. He said it makes us feel good to have someone else explain to us why we are right.
I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and the more I’ve thought about it the more life experiences I have come up with that tell me he was right.
How a patrol of Boy Scouts made choices
I’ll never forget the day when I gave my patrol of 11-year-old boy scouts two options for their upcoming swimming activity. I wanted them to discuss the pros and cons of each and decide together which option they wanted to pursue. I was surprised to see that half of the boys wanted the first option while the other half wanted the second option.
After every boy had had a chance to explain why he wanted the patrol to follow the option that he was supporting, I asked them again which option they wanted to pursue. This time I expected most of the boys to agree on the first option which seemed like the better choice.
However, to my surprise, not a single boy had changed his mind.
I wanted the boys to learn how to work together, use good communication and figure out the best outcome on their own.
After thinking for a few seconds on how to help them, I asked one of the boys that supported the first option to tell me why the other boys supported the second option. There were several advantages to both options and, to my surprise this young man didn’t know what any of them were.
Upon further investigation, it turned out, each of the boys knew all the advantages of the option he supported and none of the boys knew a single advantage of the other option.
I then led a discussion, and made sure that each boy listened to, and understood, the other viewpoint.
Suddenly every boy, except one, agreed that the first option was the better one, and the one boy that still supported the second option understood the benefits of the first option well enough that it no longer bothered him to go along with the first option.
Freakonomics of our beliefs
As I thought about this I remembered a podcast I had listened to. It was an episode of the Freakonomics series titled “The Truth Is Out There … Isn’t It?” In this episode the podcasters discussed how we are likely to spend more time and energy trying to find evidence to support our point of view and we’re less likely to spend our time and energy trying to find the truth.
In fact, in the Freakonomics discussion, they even “hypothesize that people who are more numerate and scientifically literate are better at gathering information that confirms their existing beliefs. Kahan (one of the guests on the podcast) believes this happens, in part, for a pretty basic reason: We just want to fit in with our friends. So we work to maintain viewpoints that fall in line with our social group.”
I can see how you think if I listen to your process
Since having some of these eye opening experiences, I’ve made it a point to make sure I understand the other side of things, especially on the issues where I feel most strongly. How can I possibly think I can persuade someone to change their stance, if I don’t even understand their stance. As it has turned out there have also been times when my efforts to fully understand the counterargument to my opinion has resulted in the changing of my opinion, as happened to several of my scouts.
If you can’t see how an intelligent person can take a specific position then you need to take the time and effort to understand. This concept has the power to change our entire society. You don’t have to agree with them, you just need to understand why they believe the way they do.
Leo Wright is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his own and not representative of St. George News.
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