"We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.” – Maria Popova
“Alternative facts,” “fake news,” as well as articles of warning and how to protect yourself are everywhere right now. Despite this abundance, this issue is one of great importance at Viewpoint, and cannot go undiscussed.
To begin, we have to address the fact that what we “know” is constantly changing. We used to “know” that the sun revolved around the Earth, today what we “know” may also turn out to be just as wrong.
Imagine living in the time of Galileo. There was an accepted understanding of our role in the universe, and the relationship between the Earth and Sun. These views of the world were also closely tied to ideas about the nature of the world, one’s self, and religion. When Galileo tried to turn the world upside down with his theories that were at odds with the Catholic church, there was an uproar and he was eventually sentenced to house arrest until his death.
When there is no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we are able to change our beliefs, however when that change contradicts something we’ve long held and identify with, problems occur. Today there is an unconscious desire for information that suits our already established beliefs that was just as present in Galileo’s time. Today, in the digital media age, there are virtually innumerable sites and sources at ones fingertips ready to satisfy that desire. They are then shared, and often readily accepted at face value without any delving being done into their validity.
The term “fake news” originated because of stories that were invented for the sole purpose of attracting shares on various social media platforms and web traffic by pandering to these prejudices. Sorting fact from fiction from all of the stories being shared can become so exhausting that your brain simply stops trying after a certain point. On top of this, Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard, theorizes that it is impossible to engage with information unless it is first accepted as truth. Only then does the process of separating fact from falsehood take place. And should we be less inclined to attempt that process because what we see suits our established worldview, then “knowledge” with no basis in reality gets shared willingly.
Samuel Arbesman agrees saying, “It’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact.” (2012) This is an even bigger problem than it appears at first glance, because the more a story gets shared, the more it is seen, and the more it is seen, the more it is believed even if you know better. This “illusory truth effect” affects everyone and is when you are exposed to a lie often enough that it starts to sound true.
Which brings us to the importance of asking questions.
The art of asking questions isn’t a recognized field of study, but Dan Rothstein - a Harvard Education graduate and former editor of The Harvard Educational Review - believes that asking good questions is a life skill far more important than anyone realizes. As cofounder of the Right Question Institute, Rothstein believes that learning how to ask questions should be as fundamental in children’s education as learning how to read and write. Unfortunately, ‘asking questions’ isn’t deliberately taught because there is a pervasive assumption that that anyone can do it.
Paul Harris, a developmental psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education argues that questions are more critical to childhood cognitive development than we might realize. Consider a study from 2007 where researchers analyzed the recordings of four children interacting with their caregivers for over 200 hours. On average the children asked between one and three questions per minute, putting them on pace to ask roughly 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five.
But what about adults? If asking questions is truly important in cognitive development, surely there is evidence of the benefits of asking questions in work environments. In Germany, there is an official job title in many organizations called “Direktor Grundsatzfragen” which translates as “Director of Fundamental Questions.” These people are tasked with uncovering what the next questions should be – the questions that will advance an organization and encourage innovation.
Our educational system focuses more on memorization with exams and aptitude tests that reinforce the value of correct answers. Very rarely are we asked to discover new and compelling questions, encouraged to be comfortable with not knowing the answers, or taught why we ask questions in the first place. The aversion in our culture to shy away from asking questions is also linked to quick fixes and an attachment to either/or thinking.
But skillful questioning isn’t such a simple task – it reflects difficult abstract reasoning when one is trying to fill in the blanks and gaps of knowledge. When considered this way, Rothstein notes that it’s actually a strange skill, “the ability to organize your thinking around something you know nothing about.” Being good at asking questions requires a person to stop and think about what he or she is trying to find out and what words one should use to coax the right answers out of someone.
Boston Globe columnist, Leon Neyfakh, perfectly underscores the value of questioning, “[Asking questions is] a unique instrument that we can get better at using if we try. Wielded with purpose and care, a question can become a sophisticated and potent tool to expand minds, inspire new ideas, and give us surprising power at moments when we might not believe we have any.”
Breaking the cycle
Asking questions is indeed more difficult the older we get, largely because we grow more confident that we understand the world around us, and lose the capacity to see past our own beliefs. This psychological tendency of believing we are more correct than most people extends to virtually every topic that it is possible to have an opinion on. From the serious like politics and religion, to the mundane like fashion and lifestyle.
A cure for this is being sought in the concept of “intellectual humility.” Just as humility is being heralded as a key characteristic in successful leadership today, it seems is it also essential to being a successful learner and social player. Those in possession of this skill understand the limits to their knowledge, are open to new ideas and are willingly receptive to new sources of evidence, including those that they disagree with.
Seeking knowledge that exists outside of established beliefs, asking questions, and seeking evidence instead of taking what is presented at face value, are all steps that need to be taken in order to combat “alternative facts” before they become accepted as truth.
Sources used for this post:
Boss, J. (2016). Embrace Curiosity: 4 Ways Questioning Makes You A Better Leader. Forbes.com. Retrieved 21 January 2017, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffboss/2016/05/22/embrace-curiosity-4-ways-questioning-makes-you-a-better-leader/#2c17a3201d43
Dahl, M. (2017). Your Brain Gives Up When Discerning Truth From Lies Gets Too Hard. Science of Us. Retrieved 25 January 2017, from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/01/how-the-brain-responds-to-hearing-lies.html?mid=twitter_scienceofus
Engber, D. (2016). Who Will Debunk The Debunkers?. FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved 19 January 2017, from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/who-will-debunk-the-debunkers/
Irwin, N. (2017). Researchers Created Fake News. Here’s What They Found.. Nytimes.com. Retrieved 20 January 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/upshot/researchers-created-fake-news-heres-what-they-found.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0
Lamothe, C. (2017). How ‘Intellectual Humility’ Can Make You a Better Person. Science of Us. Retrieved 3 February 2017, from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/how-intellectual-humility-can-make-you-a-better-person.html?platform=hootsuite
Levin, J. (2016). You Do Not Need the Answers. You Need the Right Questions. Switch & Shift. Retrieved 22 January 2017, from http://switchandshift.com/not-need-answers-need-right-questions
McGregor, J. (2016). Why this Wharton wunderkind wants leaders to replace their intuition with evidence. Washington Post. Retrieved 19 January 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/on-leadership/why-this-wharton-wunderkind-wants-leaders-to-replace-their-intuition-with-evidencewhy-this-wharton-wunderkind-wants-leaders-to-replace-intuition-with-evidence/2016/04/08/8013a662-fc02-11e5-9140-e61d062438bb_story.html?utm_term=.77a575d4e41c
Popova, M. (2012). How Ignorance Fuels Science and the Evolution of Knowledge. Brain Pickings. Retrieved 22 January 2017, from https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/04/02/stuart-firestein-ignorance-science/