Reality Wars: The Battles Over Truth and Reality

Interestingly enough, social science research shows that the gaps between scientists and the general public cannot be spanned by logic and rational thought alone. While necessary, they are not sufficient by themselves.
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Recently, my wife and I attended a social gathering in Marin County, which as is well known is a hotbed of intense opposition to mandatory childhood vaccinations. One of the people with whom I spoke was not opposed to vaccinations, at least not in principle. Nonetheless, the person disagreed strongly with the idea that all children had to receive all of their vaccinations in a single session. When I asked why the person felt this way, I got an adamant response: "My own online research tells me that the idea is wrong!"

I wanted to ask, but didn't, for it was apparent that it would only further inflame the situation, "And what medical school did you go to such that you are qualified to evaluate medical information?" Instead, I just walked away. End of story, and discussion!

Once upon a time, reality used to be nothing but all the hard stuff in the outside world that we bumped up against every day of our lives. And, truth was nothing more than all the true facts that were known about the external world. We don't live in this simple world any more. Reality and truth are more complicated than ever.

In a word, Americans no longer inhabit the same realities, if we ever really did. The recent clashes over whether it's necessary and safe to vaccinate one's children and whether global warming is real are just two of the many on-going battles over what's "real" and what's "true."

Increasingly, reality and truth are nothing more than what one believes and feels deeply about. And because we obviously don't share the same beliefs and feelings about crucial events and issues, reality and truth are more personal and malleable than ever.

It's not that facts don't matter much any more, but rather, what one calls "facts" is a function of what one regards as reality, and thus, the web sites one turns to for "information."

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, there is a huge gap between what scientists and the general public think about key, hot button issues such as evolution, genetically modified food, global warming, nuclear power, pesticides, etc. For instance, scientists are far more certain than the general public that (a) Global Warming is caused by humans, (b) evolution is a well-established scientific fact and (c) vaccinations against childhood diseases should be made mandatory.

The differences are far from trivial. They affect greatly what one believes one should do, if anything, with regard to some of our most pressing problems. In short, the battles over what's real and what's true have very important consequences.

Ideally, in science, an idea is accepted as "provisionally true" if and only it survives repeated attempts by scientists to prove by means of "hard data" that it's false. And, the longer an idea has been accepted, the more science tries to overturn it.

In contrast, in everyday life, people try to hold onto their ideas for as long as possible. Indeed, the more an idea is at the core of a person's belief system, the more he or she tries to protect it. Or, at least this is the commonly held stereotype of the differences between scientists and the general public.

The differences between scientists and the general public are just one of the many battles occurring daily between the proponents of very different versions of reality. Thus, religious fundamentalists of all stripes -- Christian, Muslim, or Jewish -- have profoundly different views of the nature of religion and its place in daily life than their more moderate counterparts. The views of Islamic extremists, such as ISIS and Boko Haram, regarding the use of terror and violence are not only repugnant to the overwhelming body of ordinary, lawing abiding, peaceful Muslims, but are a gross misinterpretation of Islam. More accurately, the unmitigated use of terror and violence is a throwback to a 7th century, medieval version of Islam. In other words, Islamic extremists are stuck in a 7th century version of Reality.

Some of the most interesting and important cases involve the direct clash between scientific and religious belief systems, especially when they occur within the same individual. In Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, Dr. Paul A. Moffit cites the case of an Orthodox Jewish medical doctor who justified the religious practice of sucking blood out of babies who have just been circumcised, even though the practice increases significantly the chances of transmitting herpes, and thus causing permanent brain damage to a child. Although many ancient practices have long been abandoned for health and other reasons, "When faced with two conflicting ideologies -- an Orthodox Jewish upbringing and a scientific and medical training -- the doctor yielded to his religious beliefs, choosing a weak rationalization that 'all medical procedures have side effects.' Such is the power of religious belief.'" Such beliefs are especially strong when a particular practice is part of an ancient religious ritual.

There is little doubt that we live in very different realities, and that the gaps between them are only growing greater with every passing day. What then, if anything, can be done to bridge them? Interestingly enough, social science research shows that the gaps between scientists and the general public cannot be spanned by logic and rational thought alone. While necessary, they are not sufficient by themselves. Logic and rational thought only turn off even more those who believe in their own versions of reality and truth.

As a scientist, I believe with all my being in the power of science to keep us honest. But I also believe that scientists are among the least equipped to bring about the changes we need so desperately. To effect significant change, it's necessary to present ideas, especially those that go sharply against the grain of a person's belief system, by someone who can speak plainly and simply, in short, someone the person trusts implicitly because "He or she is one of us." More than ever, we need people who can speak from the heart and the head, not one or the other.

Ian I. Mitroff is a Senior Research Associate in The Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley. He is Professor Emeritus from USC. This article is based on a book in progress, Reality Wars: Truth in The Age of Disinformation.
He and his wife live in Oakland, California.

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