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Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous statement that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” has had striking resonance of late. There is a sense shared by many that the truth itself is under siege. This feeling is supported when we see political figures on national television confidently spouting manifest absurdities like “truth is not truth” or that there is a such thing as “alternative facts.” It seems basic that for a proposition to be factual, it must be veridical; that is, it must be a claim that coincides with reality. But instead, we see that propositions are weighed against each other on different bases: on their sheer persuasive power, on the likelihood that important constituencies (voters, consumers, etc.) will be inclined to believe them (true or not), and on the degree of success with which a proposition’s proponents can discredit, silence, or discombobulate its opponents. The result is that, as a society, we seem to operate as if we are, in spite of Moynihan’s proclamation, entitled to our own facts.
Many of the proposed solutions to this problem are unsatisfactory. Some suggest that people need to arm themselves with more and better information. But the average person living in a developed, or even developing, country today has almost immediate access to amounts of information well beyond anything previous generations could have dreamed of, and a fair amount of this information is both relevant and reliable for the purpose of evaluating current events and controversies. For all of this information, we don’t seem much better off when it comes to agreeing about facts. Others suggest that it is a lack of critical reasoning that is to blame. But this, too, upon inspection, turns out to be a spurious claim. Participants in contemporary political conversation utilize reason quite effectively–to justify their own positions, to defeat those of their opponents, and to explain why they’ve accepted one set of facts and rejected the other. Certainly, these are basic ingredients of rational discourse on controversial issues. However, something is out of order when we choose our positions first and then come up reasons for why it must be right. Then, information and reason are not guides on the path to truth, but form a tool–better yet, a bludgeon–implemented to vanquish one’s foes by dismissing their assertions before actually engaging with them.
But to clearly state the problem, it’s important to clearly state the goal. The goal is that, as much as possible, individuals will come to form true beliefs about the world. While belief may seem like a flimsy notion, it takes on concrete significance when you consider the pernicious effect of false beliefs shared across a significant share of a voting population. While the superstitions of the peasantry of some monarchical kingdom of the Middle Ages may have been relatively inconsequential to the affairs of the state and, thereby, of society as a whole, the errant beliefs of large swaths of the citizenry in a modern democracy pose a deep and significant threat to not only the well-being of a nation, but the health of the democratic system itself. If the goal is indeed that individuals will come to true beliefs about the world and if mere information and reason are not sufficient in themselves to bring about this goal, then there must be a missing ingredient.
I will argue that, in a word, this ingredient is curiosity. In the end, if there is any hope for our societies to improve their track record in forming true beliefs, and, thereby, coming to shared beliefs, it is that we can better foster a spirit of curiosity in them. One may doubt that such a thing can be done, but in light of the failure of information and reason as remedies, I would suggest that we must try.
Continue reading “Curiosity Killed the Cat, But It Might Save Humanity”