My career has been spent in education. My main focus has been finding better ways to explain what is happening in the world. To do this, I have spent a lot of time reading, researching, analyzing and reporting data. I like to think that I tend to avoid cognitive dissonance, when the facts and evidence I see differ from my beliefs or how I see the world. In other words, we see the world from where we are standing – based on beliefs that were instilled and accepted as true. Dissonance arises when the evidence points in a different direction. We say to ourselves “that can’t be true.”
We live in a world of cognitive dissonance. We all have things that we “know” are true but we can’t prove them because reality refuses to cooperate. I see my wife as tall but in reality she is barely five-two. That fails to meet most definitions of vertically gifted. I still see her as tall.
Many people know that the earth goes through cycles of warming and cooling, that higher levels of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere raise ambient temperatures, and that humans by burning fossil fuel increase the amount of carbon dioxide but some people claim that climate change is just a myth. This may cause cognitive dissonance in those who know all the facts but still choose to believe that the facts can’t be true.
Interestingly, many scientists are just as blind to their biases as other people (this is an assertion and not necessarily a fact). Tobias Gerhart, PhD at Rutgers’ Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research in his article in Research Fundamentals notes that bias is the “systematic error in a study.” He points out that all studies have bias and that one role of the researcher is to identify and reduce its impact. Some studies are done because the researcher has a point to prove – biasing the study from the start.
Our job, as educators, is to help people face the inconvenient truths (or at least inconvenient facts) and discover what might be a reasonable conclusion. The challenge is overcoming our personal biases and beliefs and allowing the evidence to lead us to rational decisions.
As we listen to the rhetoric of political debate, business groups, religious organizations, and others we need to recognize that they all come with their own realities that may or may not be based on cognitive realities. Our job as an intelligent species is to hear their points, understand that they (or we) may be denying facts or using selected, crafted facts to prove a point and then make our own interpretation based on the best evidence and not just the intensity of their arguments.
My quote on this is that “reality is based on what we see and believe and not necessarily on what is factual.”