One of my favorite quotes comes from Andre Gide: “Trust those who seek the truth, but doubt those who say they have found it.” This statement resonates so deeply with me, as I feel that I am engaged in the quest for truth every day of my life, always being willing to yield my current set of beliefs and understandings about the world when sufficiently convincing evidence or arguments come along to make me change my mind. The key is, my mind can be changed. What ego I have is not threatened by those smarter than me or those who have greater life experience. On the contrary—I am always on the lookout for intelligent, experienced people who speak with logic and eloquence who can present genuine challenges to things I currently believe. I won’t surrender my beliefs lightly, but I won’t cling to them at all costs either. If someone’s ideas show my own to be incomplete or flat-out incorrect, then I owe that person a debt of gratitude for setting me straight.
What increasingly frustrates me are the growing number of individuals who say they have found the truth and will not be budged, despite mountains of demonstrable evidence that show their beliefs to be false. No one listens anymore. No one compromises anymore. Fewer and fewer people today respect those who simply know more than they do and are in a better position to make the claims they make. I fear what our society may become, or is becoming, should we continue to jettison our trust in established knowledge and bend the knee to the flawed ideas of the closed-minded and the ill-informed.
Tom Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School, outlines the extent of this crisis in his book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Here is Nichols laying out the foundations of his case:
While expertise isn’t dead, it’s in trouble. Something is going terribly wrong. The United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance. It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography; they don’t, but that’s an old problem. And really, it’s not even a problem in so far as we live in a society that works because of a division of labor, a system designed to relieve each of us of having to know about everything. Pilots fly airplanes, lawyers file lawsuits, doctors prescribe medication. None of us is a Da Vinci, painting the Mona Lisa in the morning and designing helicopters at night. That’s as it should be. No, the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. (Nichols ix-x)
People are going to the doctor’s office and telling the doctor what medication they should receive because they saw it on the Internet and think it will help them. Never mind the dozen diplomas on the doctor’s wall from reputable medical schools and training programs that show that he or she is the one in position to best determine what the patient needs. Since that patient has the skills to Google something and form an opinion, that patient’s viewpoint is of equal validity to that of the trained and experienced professional. Really? This is not to say that doctors or experts never make mistakes. Of course they do; they are human, too. But one mistake should not overshadow or cancel out the thousands of other instances where the experts were right.
I recently sat down with a group of very young people at my Unitarian church and held up two objects—a small rubber ball and a plate. I asked them this: “Of these two objects, which one best represents the shape of the planet on which we live?” Every one of them pointed to the ball. I asked them how they knew that to be true, and continued. “If you go outside and let your senses guide you, it sure looks pretty plate-like: flat, with occasional bumps (those are mountains). No matter how far you walk, it will still seem flat. You know what else? It sure looks as though the sun is going around the Earth, not the Earth around the sun. I mean, watch it. I can stand perfectly still all day, not moving an inch, and watch the sun move across the sky.” They got pretty excited about this stuff. They knew about gravity! They had seen pictures taken from space! I asked them if they had personally taken those pictures and done all the math to prove what they believed, or if they had just been told that those things were true by someone they had come to trust, such as a teacher or a parent, and took it at face value. Of course, they had just been told things, but that did not make them waver in their convictions. They were quite certain that we live on a ball that is rotating around the sun. They were pretty stunned to learn that Galileo was forced to recant that very idea just a few hundred years ago. I eventually laughed and told them that my job was not to get them to believe otherwise, but to encourage them to keep asking questions—to probe and ask why.
None of us should accept what we are told at face value; we should cross-reference our sources and work to come to the best conclusions possible, always being willing to alter our beliefs in the face of new facts. It is particularly difficult for us today. We have access to more information than any other generation in the history of humankind, but the other edge of that sword is that there is no mechanism to filter out information that is questionable at best and outright fabricated at worst. It is up to us as consumers of information to carefully scrutinize what we read and hear, compare it with multiple different sources who can be deemed valid and reliable (gasp) experts, and draw provisional conclusions until better information comes along. Those kids I spoke with haven’t yet come across a convincing argument to make them believe the Earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the Earth (this gives me some hope). I haven’t found one either. However, there are those out there–adults out there–who believe otherwise and refuse to even question their own positions. They are the “flat-earthers.”
Most of the flat-earthers believe that Antarctica is not a continent, but rather, since the Earth is a flat disk, the North Pole is at the center and Antarctica is an ice wall around the perimeter, like something straight out of Game of Thrones. They do believe in the sun, the moon, and the stars, but only because they can see them. They don’t believe there is a solar system. They can observe the flat Earth with their eyes, so there you go.
They believe that the sun and the moon rotate around the Earth, following each other, and the sun and moon are the same distance from the Earth—and the same size. Doesn’t it look that way? Gravity is viewed as a magical, invisible force that doesn’t actually exist. It’s just theoretical. Once people understand the physics principles of density and buoyancy properly, gravity no longer holds up (or is it holds down?). How is it that a helium balloon can escape the grasp of gravity, but it is strong enough to hold the moon in orbit and keep the Earth in orbit around the sun? How can oceans of water stick to a spinning ball in space? We’ve all been manipulated into believing that. If we could just trust our senses and common sense, we would then see the truth. These are their beliefs.
I have never met a person who genuinely holds these beliefs, but I would certainly like to. I would enjoy posing some questions and watching the cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias kick into overdrive. It’s funny though, isn’t it, that I myself trust in the science that I have been taught by others telling me that the Earth is round, yet my own senses seem to confirm what the flat-earthers postulate? I am able to understand that there is much more to the universe that we cannot directly perceive from where we stand with our meager human senses. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It has taken centuries of scientific advancement to get us to the point where, through science and direct observation via technologies such as the Hubble telescope, we can confirm what the human eye alone cannot detect. There are people infinitely more intelligent than me who have done the math, taken the classes, earned the advanced degrees, and devoted their lives to studying how the universe is actually structured. I trust them, because they are the experts in their fields and I am in no position to challenge their conclusions with feeble excuses like “Well, MY truth is that the sun and the moon are the same size and they are going around the Earth! Who are you to question my beliefs?” Well, they are the experts.
Those experts wouldn’t say “who are you to question my beliefs” to a flat-earther; they would explain. They would teach. They would guide. And in the end, they would walk away frustrated, probably having failed to change any minds. Convincing those who believe the Earth is flat that reality differs from their deeply-held convictions is unlikely. Research has shown that when people are confronted with information that challenges their most cherished beliefs, they in fact do not consider it with an open mind, but rather double down on their current position and forcibly deny any information that challenges them. It is wasted energy. Let us instead take the advice of two individuals: Socrates, and Ray Bradbury.
Socrates coined the phrase “know thyself,” and encouraged us to live an examined life. One way we can do so is to heed the advice of Professor Faber, the out-of-work former literature instructor turned revolutionary from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. When Guy Montag, the novel’s protagonist, asks the professor what is missing from their dystopian society that would help them to reclaim a true sense of happiness, Faber lists the things needed: “Number one, quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two” (Bradbury 81).
And there it is.
Let’s take the first item: quality information. We need to seek what is true, from the most authoritative experts we can find. We need to read their books, not listen to the spin doctors misrepresent their ideas, but truly and individually wrestle with the ideas of those who have done the hard work we are not in the position to do.
We then need to take the time to contemplate and “digest” their ideas. Truly great ideas are not comprehended from a first reading or Reader’s Digest condensed version of the original. We have to struggle with dense, challenging material, ask questions about it, think deeply about it, and refuse to back away from it until we have integrated the ideas that pass our mental muster into our worldviews, keeping those until even better ideas come along. New and better ideas WILL come along, so long as we continue searching for them and learn to tell the good ideas from the bad. The most important thing for us to remember is that everyone’s beliefs are their own, and your beliefs are sacrosanct—you are on your own journey, and you have a right to believe whatever makes the most sense to you and inspires you to keep going. Just remember to be open minded to new information, be willing to consider it, and then, if you find something thought-provoking enough to integrate into your current beliefs, then do so, knowing you have grown as a result.
Lastly, we must then act on what we learn from these contemplations, and that action can take many shapes: talk to others, write letters to the editor, call your elected representatives, get involved with your local government in some fashion, listen to great, long-form podcasts where smart people interview even smarter people without agendas or commercial interruptions. Write poetry and read it publicly. But most importantly, do not stay silent in the face of demonstrable ignorance, particularly when those who value that ignorance attempt to attain a level of power and influence that will negatively impact the world in which all of us must live. As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris once said: “The only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us.”
May we learn to live an examined life, and be constant seekers of truth and meaning.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951.
Nichols, Tom. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.