Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Pursuit of Truth

We all claim to be interested in truth and yet our actions often tell a different story. Why is that? Partly it’s because truth is often difficult to ascertain. Some folks, for example, believe that vaccines cause autism despite the fact that every legitimate scientific test to date disagrees.

Some people believe that fluoride in the water causes arthritis and cancer and brittle bones and brain problems and kidney problems and … well, you get the idea.

Some people believe that climate change is a hoax and that since the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is around .04% – 400 parts per million – it can’t possibly be warming our planet to the level most scientists claim.

Some people believe that banning immigrants from 7 countries that are largely Muslim will make us safer even though the 9/11 terrorists came mostly from Saudi Arabia and that country is not included in the ban – and even though some countries in the ban (like Iran) have not produced terrorists who have attacked Americans on our own soil.

The truth can hurt.

Part of the problem is that for many scenarios it is difficult to ascertain what truth is. For example, when a massive flood strikes a Midwest state, that event usually has multiple causes – like heavy rain and the inability of the soil to soak up water (often because too many trees have been cut down and trees capture a lot of groundwater). Climate change isn’t the sole cause of the flooding. Sure, it contributes to the flooding, but it isn’t the only cause.

This gives people wiggle room to continue believing what they want to believe, to cherry pick the facts that support their belief system. After all, it’s uncomfortable to admit we’re wrong. And the more deeply held the belief, the more difficult it is to admit our errors.

Look at slave owners in the pre-Civil War South. They were convinced that they were following the natural order, that African-Americans couldn’t take care of themselves. The slaves seemed unable to understand what was being demanded of them; they worked slowly and made lots of mistakes. “We’re taking care of them,” the slave owners said, “because they’re subhuman.”

Now imagine you’re a slave and forced to do your master’s bidding, the worst jobs, with no pay and poor food and subject to being killed or tortured if you disobey. Wouldn’t you pretend not to understand? Wouldn’t you work slowly? Wouldn’t you fight back in the only way possible? Of course you would.

So the slave owners had a distorted image of reality based on conditions they themselves created that sabotaged the opposing viewpoint. These are the kinds of contortions we put our minds through every day in order to reconcile what we see with what we believe.

Many truths are not absolute. As a result, many of us have come to believe, wrongly, that there is no such thing as absolute truth. We sow distrust of those who preach opposing views and point to subjective truths as evidence that we’re right and they’re wrong. And we get to keep believing in the world we have invented for ourselves.

But in the meantime, we march inexorably toward certain realities, like the fact that if we continue on this course, much of Florida will be underwater in a hundred years. Tornadoes and floods and droughts will become much more common as weather patterns shift due to changes in the jet stream caused by a warmer Arctic and increased evaporation. Even though that will be long after I’m dead and I won’t be here to witness it, that doesn’t mean I don’t care if it happens.

So we need to stop babying ourselves, nurturing our narrow worldviews. We need to study what the experts in given fields say and discount the solitary voices of extreme dissent. We need to make sacrifices for our collective future or else that future is going to be awfully unpleasant.

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