As a debater, I often try to convince others that there is more to a topic than they believe…. AKA that they’re wrong. Yet the older I get, the more I notice that regardless of what I say or the proof that I give, I get 1 of 3 standard responses: The Stingy Eyeroll, The Twisting of Facts, or finally, The Personal Attack. Ouch!
“Facts are stubborn things, but our minds are even more stubborn”- John Adams
In an ideal (and completely unrealistic) world, our opinions would be solely based on unbiased evidence. But that is far from how humans actually think.
When forming opinions, we go through a subconscious internal war of Fact vs. Opinion. Facts are completely unbiased information that is supported by evidence or science; it might help to think of facts as a wise professional with a suit, monocle, and tie. On the other hand, opinions are shaped by everything around us, from the ideals we were raised with, to the books we read. Opinions are kind of like your next-door teen neighbor who always wears basketball shorts and loves chewing gum.
Whoever of the two wins the internal debate, shapes our personal beliefs.
But why is it so the winner nearly always tends to be the shabby teen boy?
How we form our opinions — Personal Experiences
It is no surprise that our perception of the world is built on our experiences. As humans, we look for patterns we can generalize to make sense of the world around us. This is awesome because we learn so much by just … living. Yet the problem is that the conclusions we come to aren’t necessarily true ALL the time leading to stereotypes, prejudices, and misconceptions.
Based on the conclusions we make, we take the first major wrong turn: we blur the line between opinion and truth.
So what would this actually look like in real life?
Let's take an example! Say that you and I are born into two distant villages in ancient Greece where communication is much more difficult than in the faraway modern world. In my village, everyone is about 4 feet tall while in yours, everyone is 6 feet tall. What can you say … genetics.
If one day a traveler from my village visited yours and reported back that people were giants, we would think that he is lying because it goes against what we have personally seen all our lives!
This exact order of logic seeps into moral and scientific world issues as well. In a 1979 study conducted a group of contestants was presented with two fake cases related to the death penalty. One of them supported the premise that tough punishment would result in less crime while the other contradicted it; along with these, participants were also given copies of studies that opposed both cases. It was seen that participants were more vocal about supporting the case that was aligned with their personal opinion and critiqued the counter study regardless of any arguments made by the papers.
So what exactly does this tell us?
We extract meaning from our lives to form charged viewpoints. We carry these perspectives with us to every situation and mold our opinions based on them.
How our opinions are strengthened — Confirmation Bias and Selective exposure.
If our opinions are so biased then shouldn’t outlets such as social media and the news help put things in perspective? Ironically, no!
Just like we gravitate towards people with who we share similar views, we gravitate towards information we already believe in. This is called confirmation bias.
Many news sources are subject to media bias, meaning they present information from an angle that supporting or critiques certain issues or even political parties. As a result of our own confirmation bias, we are attracted to news coverage that aligns with our views, even if the information is not factual.
Research analyzing main news sources done by Pew Research Center supports just this idea. The study concluded that 93% of the viewers of Fox News leaned republican while 95% of the viewers of MSNBC leaned democratically. Both Fox and MSNBX are known for their partisanship, and it is clear that their audience shares the same perspectives.
Only listening to things we agree kickstarts a cycle that strengthens our existing opinions, isolates our perspectives, and most importantly undermines the power of the truth. Here we make our second wrong turn: we only accept our opinions as facts.
But what happens if we don’t have a strongly formed belief around an issue?
It seems that the way media presents information also shapes our original beliefs. A 2000s study conducted by Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan sought to uncover the impact of media bias in presidential elections, indirectly reflecting how people‘s opinions are shaped by bias. To do so, they analyzed the correlation of the establishment of the conservative Fox News Channel with the Republican votes gained in elections between 1996 to 2000 which is when this channel was being established. They analyzed data from nearly 9,000 towns that broadcasted this news channel and noticed that Republicans gained between 0.4 and 0.7 percentage points and convinced around 11 to 28 to vote Republican according to a restrictive audience measure.
Even if we don’t have a strong opinion, the manner we are presented with the issue, already causes us to form a bias.
How We Grow to Ignore the Facts — Motivated Reasoning and Back Reasoning
We have all heard or seen a conversation like above occur, especially in the context of a politically polarized issue such as climate change. So back to our original question: why do so many people not believe facts?
If our opinions are so solidified, the two separate concepts of fact and opinion fuse together. When presented with facts, we begin to make excuses that support our opinions and delegitimize facts, meaning that we make justifications for why the teenage boy is smarter than the grown professional.
This idea of denial against facts to protect emotionally biased reasoning is called motivated reasoning and it is a key area of discussion in neuroscience.
Take for example the anti-vaccine movement. Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet paper sparked the start of the idea that there is a correlation between vaccines and autism rates in children. Though Wakefield’s paper has been retracted and disproved many many types, much more information holding up his hypothesis continues to persist and spread. In fact, fake news in general is six times more likely to spread than factual information. When the fact and opinion become one, it exposes us to believe anything, even if it has no true base.
Here is where we take our third wrong turn: we become protective of our viewpoints and unwelcoming of discussion and facts.
“Everything we hear is an opinion not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective not a truth.”- Marcus Aurelius
So how can we break this cycle and facilitate productive discussions?
The good news is, the change starts with each individual making a difference within their own lives!
Step 1: Understand That There Is More To The Story
Though our life experiences speak volumes about the world around us, we must put them in perspective. The only way to capture a bigger glimpse of the truth is to understand the viewpoint of others.
The best thing you can do is to hear as many sides as you can and most importantly be the biggest critic of what you believe. Reach out to friends about their experiences and listen to several different news stations. Your beliefs matter and it is up to you to assure they are as informed as they can be.
Step 2: It’s a Discussion, Not a Fight
When you are in a heated argument, remember that “the aim of an argument, or discussion, should not be victory but progress” — Joseph Root.
Our communities are full of insightful different perspectives and discussions are a common ground for the exchange of knowledge on both sides. Yet if we continue to view arguments as fight, we will not be able to progress, but instead, just aggravate each other.
As the brilliant Japanese writer Haruki Murakami put it “Always remember that to argue, and win, is to break down the reality of the person you are arguing against. It is painful to lose your reality, so be kind, even if you are right.”
Be respectful of differences, and learn to embrace them. The only way to lose is to not be open to listening.
Step 3: Always Seek Knowledge
There is always something we can learn from everyone and everything. Make a conscious effort to view the world from different viewpoints. There is much more uniting us than pulling us apart.
For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, and debate. — Margaret Haffernan
We live in a world that is so incredibly divided because of our contrary beliefs. But in any healthy society, there will always be disagreements and conflicts… actually they are healthy and progressive change.
The real solution is to discuss these differences and listen.
So I urge you to start right now — yes, right now — to challenge your perspective, to realize your privileges, and with respect in mind, debate.