Demand Truth to the Last Grain

Demand Truth to the Last Grain January 9, 2017

Image via Pixabay

Recently, a number of Facebook friends and I had an interesting discussion about ribs.

Before you start salivating at the thought of some nice barbecue, though, I should mention that we were talking human ribs, and these friends are former evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The conversation started because one person was irate that their child had been told by a teacher in a public school the old fundamentalist canard that, because of the method of creation of the first humans in Genesis 2, men have one fewer rib than women do. Many people (including me) expressed outrage that a teacher — especially in a public school! — would tell such a blatant lie to a child, but what took even me off guard was how many people joined the conversation to say that they had not only been told this lie but indeed had continued to hold it to be true long after they had left fundamentalism, often into adulthood. Some people even bravely admitted that they were just then finding out that it was a lie.

Yikes.

This wasn’t even my first experience with seeing this particular myth in the wild. When I taught high school English, I once had students — high school juniors! — who made this claim, and despite the fact that I was almost excessively neutral in how I conducted myself, I immediately refuted that for the class because I couldn’t stand for that falsehood to go unchallenged for a second longer.

Now, it would be easy to chalk this up to incuriosity or a lack of intelligence, but frankly that’s quite unfair to those who held this view, many of them who are quite intelligent. And of course there’s also the fact that intelligent people often believe silly things, so this clearly isn’t a very useful hypothesis.

The real culprit, of course, is that people who are taught this lie aren’t taught it in a vacuum. They’re also taught to put their faith wholly in the authority of a religious community or organization or maybe a limited number of individuals (often family) and to distrust all other authorities, especially secular authorities. That kind of instruction is much more difficult to unlearn, and by the time a person has been able to break out of that thinking, some of these false ideas are going to remain.

More to the point, it’s very likely that many of us who didn’t endure such indoctrination still hold little falsehoods to be true. For my part, because a trusted schoolteacher taught it to me, I believed the myth that Christopher Columbus was a rogue thinker in considering the world to be a sphere instead of flat, holding this to be true even past my high school years. When I found out that it was a terrible lie, I was embarrassed for believing it and angry for having been taught it. (I still hold a grudge against Washington Irving to this day.)

Even beyond childhood, we can still find ourselves believing the simplest of lies, because of a variety of cognitive biases. Sometimes this happens even when finding out the truth for ourselves is trivial.

David Mikkelson, the co-founder of Snopes, has a similar story:

My wife and I once took part in a guided group tour of Stagecoach Inn a local historical site and museum billed as being an authentic 19th century stagecoach stop on the route between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. […] The tour took us through the Inn’s front parlor, which appeared to be filled with furniture and objects dating from the latter half of the mid-19th century, without regard to whether they were actually furnishings one might have encountered in the original hotel during its heyday. One of the objects on display in the parlor was an upright piano, about which the docent solemnly informed our group: “We don’t know how old this antique piano is, but we know it was built before 1880 because that’s when pianos were standardized with 88 keys, and this one has only 56 keys.”

Something about this narrative didn’t sound right to me, so as the tour group moved on to the far end of the room, I lingered behind to ponder this antique musical instrument. What the docent had said wasn’t completely implausible, as early pianos were typically smaller in range and boasted varying numbers of keys until the 88-key version became the standard sometime around the 1880s. Still, I’d played a bit of piano myself, and the instrument before me appeared to be one that bore a modern, standard keyboard configuration. Curious, I began counting its keys; when I finished, I burst out laughing and quietly gestured to my wife to come back over to where I was standing. After she reached me, I told her (sotto voce): “Yes, this piano has 56 keys. 56 white keys. It also has 32 black keys.” In other words, this “antique” piano had the same 88-key configuration that virtually all modern pianos have.

Like the myth of the missing rib (an idea so preposterous, by the way, that even Answers in Genesis thinks it’s a bad argument), this one is ridiculously easy to test: You can do it simply by counting. The same goes for this claim about supposedly miraculous calendar dates in 2017. So why don’t people challenge these claims?

At the risk of oversimplifying a bit: Because it takes too much brainpower.

I’ve written before about this facet of human cognition, which is divided into two systems (helpfully but uncreatively called System 1 and System 2). System 2 is the kind of cognition we typically think about, the more intensive and intentional higher-order thinking that characterizes most intellectual endeavors. If you’re doing anything more than skimming this writing, you’re engaging in System 2 thinking.

However, because it’s more intensive, we don’t have the mental bandwidth to sustain that level of thinking all the time. Enter System 1, a more automatic and unconscious set of cognitive processes that allow us to function without the constant stress of fully intentional action. System 1 isn’t just our co-pilot here; it’s our autopilot.

When I talked about this in March of last year, I said that this aspect of human cognition might just have made Donald Trump “the perfect candidate,” which are without a doubt some of the most depressing words I’ve ever written. But even though I got a lot of things wrong about how the election of 2016 would play out — including the outcome itself — I sadly don’t think this was one of them.

This doesn’t satisfy me. I want to be wrong about this; I want us to find more and more effective ways to transcend this bug of human cognition.

That is no small task. The amount of information that most people (and certainly most Americans) are bombarded with is immense. As our president-elect has demonstrated over the past year and a half, lies are easy to generate, harder to debunk, and harder still to root out altogether once they’ve been disseminated.

But that doesn’t dissuade me. It increases my resolve. In a world where the term “post-truth” has such currency, we must redouble our efforts.

A few years ago, I wrote an open letter to religious people about what I called “urban legend theology,” which is a similar sort of tendency to credulously accept and then spread easily disprovable lies as long as those lies bolster their own theological views. In it, I gave this admonition, drawing language from the New Testament parable of the talents:

It is my contention, Religious Friends, that you are not being “faithful over a little” when you fall into this habit of uncritical, undiscerning acceptance. After all, no matter what your tradition, don’t you believe that you’re on the side of Truth – capital-T, ultimate, objective, timeless truth? Don’t you trust in the message of your faith? Then why would you need to lie to bolster it – or, perhaps worse, to be completely indifferent to the verifiable truth of even the little details?

It’s easy to think that’s just a thing that Religious People™ do, but it really isn’t, and anyone who believes in truth as a profoundly important notion, not just whatever ideas seem convenient for our current purposes, would be well-advised to take that admonition to heart as well. I know I do.

So here’s what I would like to encourage you to do in 2017: Take no truth for granted. It might be easy to ignore the seemingly little claims, the ones that seem trivial, and only pay attention to the ones that are of clear consequence. Don’t. Train yourself to scrutinize everything.

Remember: A beach isn’t washed away by boulder or rock. It erodes grain by grain.

So goes our collective understanding of reality. No truth is unimportant. Every single grain of truth matters.

After all, if we can’t show ourselves capable of defending the little truths, then how we will protect our important ones?


Image via Pixabay

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