Thursday, October 24, 2013

Taking Sides

Why do we take sides? Friend or foe. Most issues aren’t black or white, but when we line up on one side or the other, often we make them that way. Views harden, Nuance vanishes.

Most of us know we have gaps in our knowledge. To really understand many of the complex subjects debated today, you have to dig into the data. When I ask my son Chris, an economist, what he thinks about some new theory in his field, frequently his answer is “I’d have to see the underlying research.”
Whether we’re talking about climate change or tax policy, most of the time we don’t see the underlying research. Even when we do, even when we understand it, the deeper we look the more likely we are to realize just how little we know.
I love the line from the musical “Wicked” where the Wizard explains how history is written by the victors, so that with a little messaging a brutal conquest becomes a liberation: “There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”
I suspect there’s a Darwinian root here. Our ancestors who followed strong leaders had the support of the group and were more likely than loners to survive. For their parts, would-be leaders tend to exude moral certainty. Except in ancient Greece, it’s hard to attract a crowd with the Socratic method.
We herd together for survival. For our own good. But what if it’s not for our own good? What if we’re being led astray? How do we know which leaders to follow?
I have a friend who sends me global warming pieces by a writer who is certain that man is not the cause of the problem. I looked up the author. His climate credentials are so thin that I don’t pay any attention to him. Every once in a while I send my friend an article from The New York Times on some subject we are kicking back and forth. The last time I did this, he replied that he feels the same way about the credibility of the Times as I do about that of his climate writer. Fair enough.
But is it?
It makes a difference to whom we listen. We may be drawn to those who are saying what we want to hear, but it is the advice of independent experts that we should prefer. The problem is that people claiming to be experts are a dime a dozen. Some are. Many aren’t. How do we tell the difference?
Sorting out the prophets from the profiteers can be a challenge. When we see a street-corner preacher, we know the source of his conviction. But we may not know that a scientist’s research, which we trust to be objective, is influenced by the industry that financed him. The doctors in the 1950s who were paid by the tobacco industry to reassure us that smoking was perfectly safe betrayed the trust we instinctively place in professionals. Today it might be “climate deniers.” Or “clean coal” advocates. Follow the money, the old saying goes. That’s still a pretty good maxim.
These days, so many are directly or indirectly paid to expound their views that we would do well, I think, to view with skepticism positions that are thrust at us: political ads; talk radio; economic or scientific conclusions at odds with the preponderance of thought in the field.
We need to ask ourselves: Why is this person telling me this? What’s in it for her? If the answer seems to be “nothing,” and if her credentials seem genuine, she’s worth listening too. If not, ask yourself that clich├ęd question: Would you buy a used car from this person?

Even unbiased experts don’t always agree, of course. Sometimes no one knows the answer for sure. But if we’re lining up with a real authority, someone genuinely seeking the truth on the matter at hand, even if there’s a crowd on the other side, chances are that rather than hurling stones across the divide of our disagreement we are going to slowly come together, as our expert and theirs cast about for new ground on which we all can stand.


  1. Sometimes the supposed experts lack historical perpective. Remember the concerns over the upcoming 'Polar Ice Age'? That was still being taught AFTER Dad had died. Do you remember? I do. Commonly taught from elementary school through College for me. If you check the records, you'll find that North America had one of its coldest periods between 1930 through the early seventies. Makes you wonder if the experts of that era had an understanding of climactic patterns, and how quickly they can change.

  2. I am, as always, impressed with your fairness, Mac! You are a model to me. And you're absolutely right that it's crucial to think about the context in which "facts" come to us: who is the speaker? What kind of knowledge does this person / organization have? How balanced is the presentation?

    One of my all-time favorite exercises in college was in an ancient history course (!) --- This gave me my first chance, ever, to think about such questions -- for instance, "Who is writing this account of the battle of ____ in 1292?" "How does this account sort with other accounts of the same battle?" "What did this historian leave out?" That kind of thing. Fascinating!

    It's one thing to find this fascinating with something that happened 1,000 years ago. It's a much harder, more emotional one to have genuine conversations with people who hold views diametrically opposed to one's own, based on what can appear to be flawed evidence. This is more important than ever, as sides become louder and more defined, and compromise or even simple dialogue vanishes in the battle. Thank you for your optimistic conclusion!!