I Know this to be True

Sometimes just flipping around the channels sparks ideas. Good ideas? Maybe, but definitely strange thoughts… In my effort to keep up with the news and NOT drown in it, I read a little of this and that including both the New York Times and the Washington Post, watch a range of TV news shows, and listen to various shows on NPR. So when I scrolled from MSNBC to CNN and then on to some morning talk show on ABC, I caught a few choice words from everyone’s favorite—Oprah Winfrey.

Am I being sarcastic about one of the most influential women in the world? A little bit. Although I’ve admired many of Ms. Winfrey’s charitable works and media projects, I’ve maintained a skeptical eye when she pitches products and ideas. Her TV show promoted all sorts of junk science health tips that were easily debunked and the formidable power of her book club gave her the ability to make bestsellers—and to be taken in by frauds, too.

Anyway, Ms. Winfrey was touting her latest book that features conversations with important people—many of whom I admire. Why then did my skeptical hackles rise up? On the talk show, she told the hosts that the book was all about the shivers you feel when you KNOW something to be right. When things fall into place and you understand. To me, her enthusiasm seemed a great deal like the happy feeling you get when your existing idea is verified.

Too much of history is guided by the thought, “I know this to be true.” It’s this certainty that suppresses minority opinions, that demonizes opposition, and builds walls that take serious efforts to break down. How many times has knowledge of a singular truth led to war? A great many times…

A couple of days later, I was back on the treadmill at the gym and, instead of watching the news, I was listening to NPR’s On the Media show. There was a segment that expressed my quandary in a precise manner—‘confirmation bias.’ When we already have a particular opinion or perspective, our BIAS IS CONFIRMED when we hear or read or see something that supports our viewpoint, so the tingle of YES that Ms. Winfrey talked about made me worry about our inclination to seek out agreement and avoid information that contradicts our preconceived notions.

While creating fiction, confirmation bias is a way of explaining why a character fails to see the writing on the wall, tilts at windmills, and knows deep down something specious (or baseless or unproven) to be true.

It’s a snow day in NYC and the world slows down… A good day to think & write.

Comments

  1. I’m only guessing here, but I think that confirmation bias may have a physiological ‘reason’ in that the more connections our brains build to a certain thought or idea, the stronger it becomes. It’s kind of validated because there are so many connections to it.
    The way around that is to teach /young/ brains to question, because then the connections don’t all lead to the one place.
    I’m still guessing here, but maybe, just maybe, our brain cells need competition between idea centres and the one that finally ends up /more/ validated wins…i.e. leads to that feeling of ‘yes…’.
    To me, that’s the true purpose of education. Not to teach kids facts, but to make them /think/.

    • Candy Korman

      Your physiological explanation sounds right to me. Is that because I’ve read something like that before and it is triggering a warm & fuzzy familiar feeling… Maybe, but I also think you’re right in an objective sense. We are bio/neurological/chemical confections with “minds” that are both in our brains and in what our bodies experience, too.

      Exposure to opposing ideas, evidence to the contrary of our deeply held beliefs, and the ability to be agile of mind—as well as body—is, I think, a trait that can be taught, self-taught, and encouraged. Education at its best teaches us to be critical thinkers. It’s not always at its best.

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