Little Boys and Big Shots

Reality checks often tank. All those bright young reporters, like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, couldn't convince Robert McNamara that his war in Vietnam was a washout. Republicans, en masse, believe that there is no appreciable man-made climate change, despite the counterview of 97 percent of the world's climate change scientists. Former Senator Rick Santorum calls the 97 percent consensus "speculative science" and dismisses the historic encyclical on climate change because he considers himself more of an expert on the subject than Pope Francis. And no fact monster will ever scare Rupert Murdock into believing that Fox News isn't, you know, fair and balanced.

People simply hold on to what they want to believe, despite a preponderance of contradictory factual information. A long time ago, an experience in my family showed me first hand how the mind plays hopscotch with the truth. This happened way back in the early 60s, when my son was four years old and attending preschool in Ann Arbor, where I was teaching human behavior courses at the university.

Dan was happy at the school but came back every afternoon with tales of the day that puzzled us. "Sam had brought a new game to school with her," or "Sam lost her lunch this morning." His frequent reports about his girlfriend Sam were mystifying. Could this person be a Samantha? Maybe, but apparently Sam liked to shoot toy pistols, get into slug matches with the boys, and talk basketball endlessly. "Are you sure the name is Sam?" I asked. Dan was sure. "Are you sure Sam is a girl?" I pushed. Dan was sure.

Our family lived in this condition of cognitive dissonance for months, when one day my wife was invited to assist at a holiday program at the school. "Here's our chance," I said. "Try to check out this androgynous Sam thing when you're on the premises." She told me to fear not; it was going to be the highpoint of her visit.

It turned out that the mystery disappeared in a blink. Sam was a boy from one of the first counterculture families in our cutting-edge town (the Beetles were just beginning to make a name for themselves), and his parents had let his hair grow abundantly down the back of his neck. The long tresses, an anomaly at the time, and the unisex clothing children were beginning to wear, convinced Dan with rock-bottom certainty that his good friend was of the female persuasion. Frequent suggestions by us to the contrary were an exercise in ineffectuality. He believed his eyes rather than the exhortations of his parents.

The gender mix-up continued as part of our lives, until one day I told myself that I ought to be able to put it to rest. After all, I'd been teaching about human behavior at the university for years. Suddenly the whole thing became clear to me. Dan was in one of Piaget's developmental stages where he couldn't deal with ambiguity. It was tough for him to maneuver uncertainty, including around gender, so he kept things he thought he knew stuck in place. I conjectured that a good way to shake this up would be to get him to test reality through direct experience in confronting the object of confusion.

When putting Dan to bed that night, I asked him to do me a favor the next day. Would he put this question openly to Sam: just ask him straight out--"Sam, are you a boy or girl?" Dan, agreeable as ever, said he would do it. I figured that in this way Sam himself would serve as an indubitable agent of enlightenment.

Driving to school the next morning, I gave Dan a fatherly reminder of his commitment. That evening, after my academic contretemps were over, I felt in high spirits bounding up the path to our house. This would be a great day, with the fog of befuddled sexuality that had hung over our house for so long finally lifted. I called Dan into the family room right away.

"Did you talk to Sam?", I asked.
Dan nodded in the affirmative.
"Well, is Sam a boy or a girl?"
Dan smiled somewhat shyly and whispered, "A boy."
Success! My strategy had worked! But I wanted the lesson to sink in.
"Tell me, how do you know?"
Dan's earnest reply came back.
"She told me."

Dan was simply trying to keep things in his life in order. Faced with confusion or uncertainty, the mind is often tenacious in holding fast to what it is convinced it knows. This quirk has a long history. Scientists continued to believe the earth was flat years after Copernicus' astronomical discoveries, and doctors went on with useless bloodletting cures far after Pasteur proved the germ theory.

Communications researchers use the term "selective hearing" to describe how audiences take in that part of a message that fits with what they believe and to screen out parts that don't mesh. Public health campaigns fail because people simply tune out frightening information about the risk of cancer or tooth decay. Selective hearing helps us keep our mental house uncluttered, even if in the end that actually causes chaos. Psychiatrists use the term "denial" to describe those defense mechanisms of the mind.

McNamara, Santorum, and Murdoch have all clutched tightly their battered truths, same as Dan did--reality checks be damned. In the end, there's a remarkable similarity in the foibles of renowned big shots and innocent little boys.