Not too long ago (in fact, almost every week) I found myself in an airport.
In the background, was a large-screen television tuned to some all-day news station…perhaps CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC. The panelists on the show were highly animated, most-likely debating some hot political topic of the moment.
I really wasn’t that interested in the actual topic…the guests…or even which channel it was playing, and in fact, I could hardly hear the news program over the din of a busy airport.
What captured my attention was that each of the four on-screen commentators seemed to be intent on speaking…loudly…not allowing their counterparts to finish thoughts or even sentences.
I suppose that this makes for good television…
Each morning before classes are started...students across the United States are asked to rise and recite the following oath first created in 1892 :
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I think about those solemn 31 words from time to time.
Although the origins of this pledge did not come from our founding fathers, it is nonetheless my belief, that our flag is a representation of the most fundamental core ideals of the United States of America…”God”…”indivisible”…”liberty and justice for all”…
Over the years there have been plenty of debate surrounding the ideas of “God”…
Most recently there have been plenty of renewed interest in “liberty and justice for all"…
While those topics are in themselves fascinating…it’s the third component that seems to have captured my attentions lately…indivisible
Although we have pledged ourselves against division…we are indeed a divided nation.
This is nothing new for America…
Our founding fathers, once they gained independence from Briton, were once bitterly divided between two factions; the Federalists who desired a centralized unified government and the Democratic-Republican who wanted a confederation of independent states.
The ideas of slavery divided the United Stated so deeply that in 1861, a group of 13 states decided to secede and form their own nation. For four years a great civil war raged, killing more Americans than were lost in all other wars – COMBINED.
In our long history, there have been division among our citizens due to immigration, labor policies, international politics and wars, economic issues, alcohol consumption, voting rights, and equal protections under the law.
Although we appear to have more derision than agreement, there were periods of time when the citizens united for a common cause.
During the Second World War, for instance, people rallied to create a unified effort in an all-out fight against the Axis countries…we were fighting for our very survival as a country and we pulled together as a team to defeat our common enemy.
So it appears that we are indeed capable of agreement among our population…so it’s not in our DNA…what is it then that causes us so much disagreement?
The answer starts with our individual belief system. These beliefs are adopted by us at an early age most influenced by our environment… our family… our schools… our churches… our friends… our community…
Nobody is actually born with religious beliefs, we are taught them… the same way we are taught our beliefs about politics, economics, work ethic, social norms, racism, sexism, evolution, abortion, and values concerning education.
We are trained at an early age to believe certain “truths” while rejecting others.
Our ideological belief system becomes our compass in which to live our lives. We have no interest in changing or adapting our beliefs.
From there, we continue to seek out information which only confirms these set of beliefs and immediately reject any additional information that contradict our core beliefs.
We are then attracted to others who share our similar beliefs. They become our closest friends, trusted advisors and spiritual leaders.
The news we watch is based on our political leanings. This in turn confirms what we already know.
People who watch Fox News would never have any interest watching the “fake news” reported by MSNBC…in the same way MSNBC watchers would never care to watch the “Nazi propaganda” reported by Fox News.
We aren’t wired to listen intently to arguments from people who have a differing set of beliefs than we hold to be true.
We would rarely…if ever…attend the religious services of another faith (with perhaps the exception of a marriage or funeral). What they talk about in other churches is heresy and we are taught to reject these beliefs.
Confirmation bias also clouds our ability to rational decisions based on facts rather than irrational beliefs.
In a famous Stanford study, the participants were chosen based on their beliefs of capital punishment. Half of the participants believed in capital punishment while the other half did not. Each half were given fictional scientific evidence showing that hard data contradicted their previous biases.
At the end of the study, participants were asked if this new data caused them to change their previous viewpoint. Overwhelmingly, the scientific data did nothing to change any of the previously held beliefs and in fact the participants rejected any data that presented a contradictory view.
There are millions of people who regularly reject real repeatable scientific evidence (not fake) about things like vaccinations, climate change, evolution, the emergence of artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, and stem cell therapies.
No matter what evidence is presented, they will carry forth their ingrained beliefs while trying to discredit the science.
…but here’s the rub…
Science is not perfect either…
The scientists themselves have a natural bias to present data that supports their own hypotheses. Even when this data is presented for peer review, many times the work is given a positive review if the data supports a widely recognized viewpoint.
The real takeaway is that we should be willing to listen to differing opinions with an open mind.
We should be considering looking at raw data and drawing new conclusions based on this data rather than using the data to confirm a pre-existing hypothesis.
I only offer you my opinion regarding belief systems and confirmation bias…but you may choose to reject it out-of-hand…or worse ignore it altogether since it might not fit your current belief system…