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Opinion

October 27, 2012

Watson: How we decide what to believe

How do we know what to think? How do we know what to believe? When faced with competing versions of the truth, or contradictory explanations or evidence, how do we decide between them, or otherwise make sense of them?

As this long — too long — election campaign season winds to a close, and after so many intense and sometimes quarrelsome political discussions have occurred, these questions come to mind — because, on the one hand, and thought about in a certain way, it’s fascinating really: We all live in the same world, confront the same culture and society and economy, have access to the same pool of information, and observe with our own eyes the same current events, and yet we can believe widely different things, hold dissimilar interpretations, and reach diametrically opposed conclusions.

How is that possible? What is going on here? Well, of course, the reality is far more complicated than I outlined above. Take Americans — sure, we all live in the same country, and the same current events swirl around us. But we all see them imperfectly, experience the economy differently, reside in varying communities and cultures, and utilize infinitely varying sources and techniques to gather information and data with which to form opinions and make sense of it all.

In addition, although Americans proudly share a common set of big values and goals — freedom, liberty, equality, justice, opportunity, happiness — that consensus is quickly tested by our descriptions of what those words mean in practice and our disagreements over the extent to which each of those goals has been met.

And here might be the most significant factor — for most of us anyway — to explain our stubborn contentiousness and the larger pendulum swings of our national mood: Our personal experiences — the backgrounds, lives, families, observations, events, traumas and blessings — that we possess are infinitely and often radically different from one another’s.

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