On Incommensurate Realities
By Ken Andersen
Inevitably we deal with individuals-family, friends, neighbors, fellow workers-who see the world differently, sometimes dramatically so. We deal with those situations: if a friend keeps a loaded gun in the drawer by the bed, in responding to an invitation to a five year old son to come over to play, "Thanks, but we are not comfortable with a situation where he may find a loaded gun and play with it." Similarly, we usually avoid certain topics such as politics, religion, or personal issues that may cause discomfort or an argument unless the situation warrants.
There are times when conflicts in perception, beliefs and convictions need resolution. This essay will deal with two such situations: one personal and easy to resolve; the other, much more problematic in terms of its effects on politics at every level and thus for our choices in voting.
My wife and I recently spent time on the Gulf Coast of Florida. In significant respects my "reality" differed from that of many individuals. We all appreciated the warmth of 80 degree days, the clear sky, brilliant sunsets, palm trees and birds, and were thankful to not be experiencing the 2014 Illinois winter. Newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, newscasts, billboards, and conversations reflected "realities" markedly different from ours: references to the Kenyan-born president, the harm of "Obamacare," the necessity to cut business taxes to stimulate the economy, and high unemployment due to Democrats giving food stamps and unemployment insurance.
What most surprised me was the sense that not just one but a series of conspiracies were afoot, many existing for a long time, e.g., Obama's false birth certification created many years ago; the theory of evolution was not science; global warming was and is bad science.
The tendency was to invoke a "faith" commitment, rarely a religious one, and to argue from one specific instance, i.e. the winter in the United States Midwest and East shows global warming is untrue. Never mind that the data for the globe as a whole show this is be a warmer than normal winter period or that the science behind global warming predicts far more extremes in drought, heat, cold, and storms that we are/will be beyond normal variations in climate.
I am reminded that we tend to live in Johnny Carson's "hermetically sealed" envelopes in mayonnaise jars. Should I have been surprised to learn ours was the only unit of the 54 in the condo complex that subscribed to the New York Times? We felt out of synch with the milieu in which we were vacationing. Yet the sense of displacement was not a major problem as we soon went home with a reminder of cultural, social, and political variations within our country.
The impact of different or even irreconcilable realities is having a major negative impact on politics in our nation. We need to choose wisely, avoiding as many poor decisions as possible in our personal lives and our civic roles in an increasingly complex interconnected world. Inevitably the deluge of information and density of communication stimuli available to us forces us to be selective. The tendency is to fall into patterns of listening to x, reading y, and focusing on people and material that reinforce our viewpoints. Given the rapidity of change that puts us in a perilous situation if we want to be responsible for our choices, conscious or not.
This takes on a particular urgency for voters in local, state and national elections. The forthcoming Congressional elections, not to mention the nascent 2016 Presidential race already under way, are central to our country's future. Already we are deluged with commercials, focus group tested slogans, slick brochures.
One response is suggested by Julia Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady": "Words, words, words. I'm so sick of words....Never do I ever want to hear another word...Show me!...Show me now!" (Poor Freddie was not up to the task.) Assuming he was, she and we still have grounds for concern. "Show me" comes in the form of a plethora of repeated TV commercials-many not "approved" by the candidates but by PACs such as those funded by the Koch brothers. Many are staged scenes; some saying Obamacare is too expensive. Several of these have been debunked, turning out on examination to be inaccurate.
A partial truth is perhaps the worst lie because the material is not totally false. Sheer repetition drills home the point. Lenin reportedly declared that a lie told often enough becomes a truth. Even if made, a correction never catches up with the original. Further, some research has shown that debunking a misleading ad actually has the negative effect of increasing its impact. The targets of the ads are almost never going to know of the correction given the cocoons within which we consume media.
What should we do? To the degree we are willing, we can seek out information, become informed about issues and, by sharing the information, possibly learn from others. We can seek out opposing views and test them to see if they withstand our scrutiny. That demands more time and far greater motivation that most of us have, although we can turn to third parties to do the work for us. But, why look for more data when we know the answer? Faith is an essential element in religious beliefs. But faith about the workings of the world leads to errors including the likelihood of confirming a hypothesis in a scientific experiment that is invalid.
Teaching courses in persuasion I stressed that ethical, logical, and motivational appeals need to be a unity-a natural fusion that invigorates one another-for maximum persuasive impact. One cannot be simply slathered on the others; there must be a valid link. (Full disclosure: the Aristotelian terms are ethos, pathos, and logos-the ethical, logical, and emotional proofs.) Like the Sinatra song of "Love and Marriage," the three go together; you can't be maximally persuasive with one without the other two.
Much is often made of the power of a specific instance or example. Witness the Reagan image of a food stamp recipient in a mink coat, or references to voter fraud in states such as South Carolina with no significant evidence it exists to any meaningful degree. The importance of moving beyond the specific example to a larger data set and judge the appropriate level of confidence in the conclusion is suggested by Florence Nightingale-yes, that Florence Nightingale!-"To understand God's thought, we must study statistics."
We can work to make our "reality" an accurate reflection of the universe and our world grounded in facts (accurate data) and the best of what science and the arts can tell us.