Facts, Beliefs, and Being Wrong

We are happy to share this insightful blog post from NCDD member John Blakinger, who reflects on the interplay of facts, beliefs, and being wrong when we are trying to address problems together. John’s reflections come from www.CivilSay.net.

Philosopher Charles Bernard Renouvier said “There is no certainty, only people who are certain.” And when it comes to contested issues people tend to project a certainty of their opposing beliefs.

We like to think there is an absolute truth or correctness and while this may be so, only if we are omniscient would we know the absolute truth. Because we don’t know everything we actually don’t know much of anything. So when we say “I am certain that gun control will save lives” or “I know gun control will lead to seizure of guns” there really is no certainty or knowing. These are beliefs.

We assemble the facts we ‘know’ and arrive at some belief. We never argue about what we know, we argue about what we believe. The book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz does a great job of describing the idea that each of us are always right. If we learned that we are wrong we quickly shift our ‘knowing’ and are instantly right again. Being wrong is always in the past. In the present we are right even when we disagree.

In her book Kathryn Schulz spends some time on confabulations (making stuff up) and this quote sums things up “The striking thing about them (confabulators) isn’t the strangeness of their erroneous beliefs, nor even the weirdness of the confabulations they generate … rather the fact that these confabulations are uttered as if they were God’s word.” There are not just one or two confabulators in the community, we all confabulate at times. Why do we do this?

Why we make stuff up has many possible reasons, the author suggests one reason is because we are bad at knowing we don’t know. We automatically fill in the blanks of what we know and in telling the story begin to believe the whole story we’ve created (both the real and made up parts). Soon we don’t know the difference and the whole story we tell becomes what we know and we are prepared to defend it.

The only way to get agreement then is to focus on the ‘facts’ each of us chooses. If we can start to agree on what the facts are and how they lead to our beliefs the community begins to create a shared belief about the problem.

This conversation of the facts requires one significant thing, listening. Kathryn’s thoughts on listening: “listening is an act of humility. It says that other people’s ideas are interesting and important; that our own could be in error; that there is still plenty left for us to learn.”

Thought I’d insert the song “You might be wrong” by Paul Thorn to close this post.

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