If you want to find the truth, then the most dangerous place for you to be is in a group that already agrees with you.
This is particularly true if membership in that group is based on shared thinking, such as the sort of church where you must all recite the same creed, the faculty of a school where there are written or unwritten expectations for what you will teach or publish, or a political party whose “platform” you must support.
The reason is obvious, isn’t it? As Alan Jacobs says in his book, How to Think,
…the pressures imposed on us by Inner Rings [of people who control such groups] make genuine thinking almost impossible by making belonging contingent on conformity.
He continues with the solution:
What hope could there be for someone who is such a devoted member of the infamous Westborough Baptist Church (“God Hates Fags”) that she tweets missives such as this one:
Thank God for AIDS! You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought His wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse!
And what if that evangelist for hate had been steeped in it since infancy, being the granddaughter of the church’s founder?
In How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, author Alan Jacobs tells the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, whose social-media campaign to spread Westborough Baptist’s message ultimately backfired in a spectacular way.
Mary enters the house and looks into the living room. A familiar appearance greets her from her husband’s chair. She thinks, “My husband is sitting in the living room,” and then walks into the den. But Mary misidentified the man in the chair. [Perhaps she only saw the back of his head.] It’s not her husband, but his brother, whom she had no reason to think was even in the country. However, her husband was seated along the opposite wall of the living room, out of Mary’s sight, dozing in a different chair.
Would you say that Mary knew her husband was in the living room or, because she was mistaken about the evidence, was she merely lucky?
Isn’t it obvious that the more consequential an opinion is, the more careful we should be about forming it? Yet one of the mysteries of human behavior is that we often do the opposite.
There is snow at the North Pole. Where there is snow, bears are white. What color are bears at the North Pole?
You probably knew how to navigate that logic before you were 10 years old. However, when researcher Alexander Luria asked Russian peasants to complete that syllogism in the 1930s, a typical response was, “Well, I’ve only seen brown bears. And only if a person came from the North Pole with testimony would I believe that the bears there are white.”
Today, we all know that the Moon’s gravity causes the tides, but what did people think before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that gravity is a universal force? I recently heard Jonathan White interviewed on NPR; he is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It turns out that serious people used to hold all manner of fanciful explanations for the tides. Three that I remember from the interview are:
- A woman is lifting her skirt and lowering it.
- A very large beast in the depths of the ocean is breathing in and out.
- The rays of the Moon heat rocks below the ocean, which causes the depths of the ocean to boil. Boiling in the region below the Moon causes the water level to rise.
Of course, these explanations are all wrong but some of them are better attempts at the truth than others. Put yourself in the time when the correct answer was not known. Which explanation would you prefer, and why?
A friend once earnestly invited me to his very fundamentalist church. I was a Christian at the time but, according to his church, I was not the right kind of Christian and was destined for hell. He said to me, “With the stakes so high, doesn’t it make sense to come check it out?”
He had a point, but I declined.