, Salem, MA

October 27, 2012

Watson: How we decide what to believe

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — 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.

At almost any age, but increasingly as we get older, before you or I witness a new event, or receive a new piece of information, we already have ideas and preconceptions about how the world works and how it should work. We know how we have lived, we have observed how others have lived, and we’ve drawn conclusions about what is effective, fair, sane, dangerous, and healthy. In short, whether we are aware of it or not, we’ve got a big set of strong opinions and coping strategies with which we navigate the world.

To some extent, we are prisoners of our own experiences. We are all apt to generalize, assume, and project, based on our experiences. And we’re apt to push new information into narratives that we already hold. Or worse, ignore it.

This is all relative, of course. If we can accept that we’re always seeing only pieces of the full reality, and if we make a conscious effort to not be stunted and defined by the natural limitations of our own experiences, then we can find ways to grow, learn more, better comprehend the lives and viewpoints of others, and develop larger capacities to consider ideas and possibilities far outside of our experiences.

This brings us back to my first questions — what to believe, and how to sort through contradictory claims and competing analyses.

There is no short answer. Examining beliefs and events is a life-long process. The world is not static, and it will never stop challenging what we think we know. But like the best scientists, we can be aware of our biases, set them aside periodically, then pose hypotheses, gather and observe data and evidence, and then test and compare and process new information against the backdrop of our opinions and belief systems.

Because each of us cannot travel sufficiently, nor individually conduct all the experiments, nor personally investigate the details of every issue, we have to rely on proxies to do these things and disseminate information. And whether we rely on sources in newspapers, magazines, books, television, or the Web, we are served best when they value honesty, reliability, accuracy, context, and the whole picture. Almost all sources will hold opinions, but good sources will make clear what is data and what is belief.

Having good information and analyses is critical. Probably, not one of us can be better than the information we have.

The trick is to believe things, sure, but also to realize that our opinions are not us, they are just the best approximate product — at a moment in time — of some total of experience and learning. Therefore, we can hold our opinions lightly, and be unafraid to adjust them.

Seeking the truth is a good thing to do. But it comes at us from many different directions, and with far more frequency than we are used to recognizing.


Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at