Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What people know and what they think they know...

Sometimes when I am riding in the back of a bus – particularly in another country - I observe the people around me – I wonder what knowledge each one has – what beliefs, what history, what stories to tell, what skills… Whether they have formal education or not each man or woman has spent a lifetime learning the ideas and ways necessary for living their life. Each one carries a wealth of information!

"Combi" ride in Swaziland

How do we come to believe what we do? We are not born with beliefs – but early on these beliefs become established. How did Martin Luther King come to develop his courage to lead a movement for change?

Martin Luther King

How did little Timmy McVeigh grow up to become so filled with hatred that he set in place his plan to dynamite the Federal building in Oklahoma? How does it happen than one brother becomes a liberal Democrat and another becomes a supporter of the Tea Party movement? I grew up in the Midwest within a community that took for granted the validity of Republican beliefs and yet my beliefs now are definitely left of center. How does this happen?

"The Thinker" Rodin ( Stanford U. )

We become convinced of the “rightness” of our beliefs – My beliefs have been affected by so many influences as I have lived my life... the communities where I grew up: my family, church, and family friends...The news sources I choose to listen to today ... My education (both formal and informal), My own reasoning...

For some people it is as if we are born into a belief community and just naturally grow to accept the ideas around us. I have seen high school age students experiment with establishing their own identity. For some it is the need to belong – it is lonely out there alone – and when we become part of a belief community we are no longer alone. For others it is like joining a group with which we want to identify. For others beliefs emerge out of long discussions with others.

My Mother's Fuller family gathering ~~1965

Once established our beliefs become a filter through which we interpret and “see” people and events of the world. Our beliefs become a barrier that prevent us from seeing more... prevent us from being open to other ideas...

Once I identify with a belief package I get lazy and instead of thinking I accept the interpretation of my news source, or my favorite “expert”, my preferred politicians. This kind of polarized thinking has become endemic in America today.

Campus - University of California - Berkeley

What does it take to change a belief? When we detect that our beliefs are no longer able to accurately deal with the world as we get to know it - then change becomes necessary and natural. I grew up in a homophobic community – and only after I have had an opportunity to known and become friends with gay and lesbian people have I changed my perception. Getting to know and value Black and Asian people in my family and friends has changed my childhood perceptions, which were based on no contact with individuals of either group.

Frank Oppenheim stated a concern in the 1960s that he perceived a growing gap between what can be learned through science – areas of atomic physics, bio chemical processes, neurology, climate change… etc… and the ability of the general public to understand what was being discovered. His solution was to start the Exploratorium Science museums.

Watson and Crick explaining how the DNA molecule can code for genetic information

Oppenheimer’s concern was that this understanding gap would have great implications as the public voted on public policy that involved technical issues. I feel the problem when I must vote on policy matters involving issues that are more complex than I understand. How do we decide how to vote on matters of health or the economy or environmental issues or food safety? The natural thing is that we rely on “experts”? But who is an expert? And who pays them to be an expert? What do we do when we discover that the experts are really paid for and represent interests that stand to gain from the policy? Are we fooling ourselves when we choose to get our news from a source that views everything though the filter of one interpretation?

Chinatown - San Francisco

The really scary thing is that there is an entire established industry in Washington DC – the lobbyists – paid for by special interests who are seeking to influence the votes of legislators . Not only do they push their opinions but also they have open moneybags for those members of congress that go along with their suggestions. Go here for more information:

What can I do?

I can be aware that my beliefs are only my best interpretation of what seems right to me. I have to be aware that other well intended people have come to different conclusions because their life experiences have been different from mine.

Accept that I tend to interpret new events in terms of my acquired ideological “filters”.

I can be aware that a "crystallized" belief is a block to an open mind. This isn't to become wishy washy - it is about listening well and to become more conscious of interpreting "the facts".