Spencer Graves with art by Ann Suellentrop
How can we know the truth?
How can anyone know the truth?
Modern research has established that we can’t.
No human can. When we are born, our brains are a mass of neurons receiving signals from eyes, ears, toes, etc., without knowing how to interpret those signals. Gradually those neurons make connections that allow us to obtain nourishment and say and do things that allow us to collaborate with others. However, those neuronal connections are more unique than fingerprints and change from one second to the next.
Deficiencies in our neuronal connections are illustrated by an experiment performed by psych profs years ago: They showed a video of a basketball game to a number of students and asked questions afterwards. Some of the students were asked to count passes. In the middle of the video, someone in a gorilla costume walked onto the middle of the court, beat its chest, and walked off. Many counting passes did not see the gorilla.1
We are all captives of the media we find credible. People hold opinions different from ours primarily because they find different media credible.
This understanding suggests ways to get past this: In one-on-one interactions with others we might start by admitting we don’t know anything for sure and asking others for their opinion. We need to find ways to have civil, mutually respectful conversations with others, even with those who say, “We don’t talk politics.” Everyone thinks they know more than they do, and the alternative to talking politics is killing people over misunderstandings.5
Wikipedia provides a model for how to get past this: It invites almost anyone to change almost anything. What stays tends to be written from a neutral point of view citing credible sources. Research on Wikipedia has found that the best Wikipedia articles tend to have the most diverse group of volunteer editors.6
We can reduce the risk of war and accelerate progress on other issues if we can get more people talking about what they think they know, thinking about how they know anything, and teaching themselves and others to talk politics: Don’t get angry; get curious.7
Spencer Graves is an engineer and Vietnam-era veteran with a PhD in statistics and is Secretary of PeaceWorks Kansas City. Ann Suellentrop is a long-time anti-nuke activist with PeaceWorks Kansas City, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other anti-war and social justice organizations.
Art by Ann Suellentrop, text by Spencer Graves, copyright 2022 Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 international license.
2 Kahneman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow (FSG, pp. 23-24).
4 Wikiversity, “Confirmation bias and conflict“, accessed 2022-02-09.
5 The Wikipedia article on “2021 United States Capitol attack” reports that some in the crowd wore shirts reading “MAGA civil war 2021”, and some of their supporters discussed the possibility of a civil war on a Facebook group. Accessed 2022-02-09.
7 This model invites us to project humility: If we admit that our knowledge is limited, it makes it easier for others to do the same. This can reduce arrogance and political posturing. We can use more research on how best to do this, especially for discussions about potentially polarized or polarizing topics. One reference that might help is the classic book by Dale Carnegie on How to win friends and influence people. The Wikipedia article on that book noted that it was first published in 1936 and has appeared in multiple editions, including one that appeared in 1981, twenty-six years after Carnegie died. Wikipedia accessed 2022-02-09.