Are you an idiot? It’s so obvious. I’m sure my neighbor’s kid could figure this out, and he’s only in second grade. Why can’t you see it? I bet you’re just being stubborn. You know exactly what I’m talking about, but you can’t admit that you’re wrong. Jerk.
I teach theology. And, although my students are polite and would never say any of these things out loud, sometimes you can see these thoughts swirling around their heads like a flock of hungry vultures waiting to pounce on the intellectual carcass of the person next to them.
Just the other day, I was talking with a couple of students about one of the many contentious issues in theology. And they were both visibly frustrated that the other person just couldn’t understand something that was so obvious to them. Neither wanted to come right out and say that the other person was just being stupid, but I bet they thought about it.
If you can’t see what is so obvious to me, there must be something wrong with you.
Or maybe there’s something wrong with the way that we all think. In a recent survey, 52% of Oregon adults said that they think crime is on the rise. That’s an interesting conclusion given that it’s simply not true. According to a recent article in the Oregonian,
From 2008 to 2009, violent crime fell 2.1 percent, putting the state’s rate at 38th nationally. Oregon’s property crime rate ranked 23rd in the nation in 2009, and that year the rate was the lowest since 1966 (emphasis added).
And, people expressed this skewed understanding of crime rates despite the fact that their own experience was significantly different. Only 25% of people said that they thought the crime rate in their neighborhood had gone up.
So, although their personal experience was that crime had decreased and the actual data indicates that crime had decreased, just over half of people still thought crime had increased overall.
When both experience and data suggest one thing, why do we persist in believing something else?
A recent article in the British Medical Journal suggests that the problem comes from cognitive bias, the ways in which we are cognitively predisposed to form certain judgments. For example, “There is considerable evidence that people presented with balanced arguments place weight on those they already agree with, exhibiting what is termedconfirmation bias.” In one interesting study,
subjects were initially categorised on a conservative-liberal scale and then exposed to factually incorrect stories on the effect of US tax cuts and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq followed by an authoritative correction. If they sympathised with the initial message the correction either failed to change their misperception or actually reinforced it.
Another study noted that subjects were far more likely to recognize contradictory statements when they were made by someone they disagreed with politically than when made by someone with whom they were sympathetic.
So we’re predisposed to believing that certain things are true, often despite significant evidence to the contrary.
The implications of this for theology should be obvious. When you encounter a theological perspective that is different from yours, it’s easy to dismiss it as being obviously wrong. Who could possibly believe that? If they would just read their Bibles occasionally, they’d see how wrong they are. Don’t they know what Paul so clearly said about that in 2 Sanctimonious 3:1?
Is this really as obvious as you think? Or is it just your cognitive bias playing tricks on you? The fact that it just seem so obvious should be your first warning. If was really that obvious, no one would disagree. (Really, people aren’t looking for new and interesting ways to be wrong about things.) So the more obvious it seems to you, the more you should take a second look.
That’s rather counter-intuitive. We tend to assume that obvious things aren’t worth investigating. That’s why we’re at our most vulnerable when we think we know what we’re talking about.
Take a closer look. And spend some time listening to what other people see. It might be like one of those optical illusions where the woman turns into a musician or the black square turns out to be a picture of three monkeys playing soccer with overripe watermelon. How can you tell if you’re seeing things correctly? You probably can’t. That’s why you need someone to look at the picture with you. They might see it differently. And then you can talk about it. (And, while you’re at it, you can mock the other person for not being able to see the picture the way you do. That’s part of the fun.)
None of us think all that well. We’re all prone to believing what we want to believe and conveniently ignoring evidence to the contrary. And I’m sure that taking time to analyze our assumptions in the company of people who see things differently isn’t going to solve all our problems. But it can’t hurt either.
Of course, it’s always possible that they really are ignoring important evidence and that they’re just plain wrong. But, more importantly, it’s also possible that I am too.