Segal: Fact or friction
December 3, 2016
"We aren't doing any more field trips."
My son's announcement about his preschool's alleged policy change surprised me, not least of all because I had the schedule of upcoming field trips in my inbox.
"Where'd you hear that?" I asked.
"My friend Adam (not his real name) told me. We aren't going on fields trips anymore at school."
I responded logically, a classic rookie parenting mistake. "I don't know where Adam heard it, but it's not true. They have a lot of field trips planned for you and they sound really fun!"
Being an idiot, I thought this would be received as good news. However, my son's mouth curved into a frown, his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed.
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"No!" he shouted. "Adam told me!" He started to cry.
"I don't know where Adam heard that," I said, "but it's not true. I'm telling you, you have more field trips. Trust me!"
His face turned red and his cries ascended to the heavens. I felt like I had to apologize for being right. "OK!" I said. "Fine! There's no need to cry about this. Let's drop it and we'll find out soon enough."
How stupid to argue about a verifiable fact, especially with a 4-year-old. And yet, just this week on National Public Radio I heard several journalists arguing about whether facts exist. That's the brave new world we're living in now. They should have had my son on the show. It would have raised the level of debate.
All of this led me to a startling realization. There's a saying in psychotherapy: "Adults are thinly veiled children." Considering how we double-down on falsehoods, I think the veil has been lifted. As we settle deeper into our echo chambers, we are not so different from red-faced preschoolers shouting baseless rumors. When challenged for evidence, we say the adult version of "because my friend said so!" — "I read it on the internet." Much of the time we don't even read beyond the clickbait headline, designed specifically to get shares, which we gleefully oblige. It's a successful "news" business model unless you think it's problematic to destroy our capacity to discern truth from fiction. I'm not sure how to quantify that bottom line except to say that it might be the whole ballgame.
Last month, a professor at Stanford tested thousands of students' ability to spot fake news. It did not go well. Upward of 80 percent of the subjects had trouble questioning the credibility of a falsely constructed news story. I worry that this gets worse among adults because we pretend to be so much wiser and more discerning, when in reality we are barely one step removed from a screaming child who refuses to believe that something he heard from his friend could be wrong. The issue with my son, I think, was that I wasn't just challenging a factual error. In his mind, I was questioning his friend and therefore him as well.
That's our challenge today. We have the emotional maturity of children when it comes to distinguishing between an attack on our person and a critique of an idea. Loyalty is a virtue, but it can become a liability. Blind loyalty to a partisan tribe clouds our vision when it comes to examining ideas. Just as my son was unwilling or unable to question his friend's stated "truth," so too do we resist challenging the orthodoxies of the groups, leaders and media with whom we identify. We move quickly to label opponents, which shuts down debate, rather than engaging vigorously with ideas.
Another obstacle is ego. We just aren't good at admitting we might be mistaken. That comes from a weakness in ego, an insecurity and defensiveness around being in the wrong. A strong, healthy ego locates self-worth in the capacity to be corrected, to sharpen thinking. One of my favorite things about Socrates is his delight in being shown the error of his ways, his joy in hearing a superior idea. To come by that attitude honestly, one must assess humbly the limits of one's knowledge. Counterintuitively, it takes a strong ego to move through the world with an openness to being wrong. It takes a reservoir of confidence to remember that being wrong is not the same as being wronged.
The alternative and currently ascendant attitude was depicted perfectly in a recent New Yorker cartoon. The frame shows a panel of three contestants on a game show called "Facts Don't Matter!" The host is saying, "I'm sorry, Jeannie, your answer was correct, but Kevin shouted his incorrect answer over yours, so he gets the points."
That's one option. We can keep shouting at each other from our tribal echo chambers, labeling and dismissing others to feed our needy egos' lust for feeling "right." Or we can nurture the healthy self-confidence to argue ideas fiercely while being equally open to correcting others as to being corrected ourselves. The latter requires caring more about the truth than the self, which is a hard sell these days.
I'm not saying I'm good at it. After all, I did get into a shouting match with a child about a banal and demonstrable falsehood. I know it's not easy, but I also know it leads to less red-faced crying and sometimes to the exhilaration of being awakened to a new truth. And that's a fact.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-925-8245. He blogs at http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.