Friday, August 6, 2010

True or False: Part II - Tunnel Vision and Headphones

I attribute some of human arrogance and narrow mindedness in terms of worldviews to our tendency to insulate ourselves. We're bombarded with options and don't have time to sort through all of them so we make choices based on trust and superficial analysis instead of informed careful consideration. Because of the ease and frequency of this kind of decision making, we surround ourselves with people who have ideas similar to ours, we read books and blogs, listen to podcasts and radio, and watch television all with the same slant that we tend to favor partly because we pick our media on the recommendations of our friends and because we dismiss ones that don't integrate well with our worldview. We pick our friends based on similar values or preferred activities. When we're faced with a tough decision we turn, if not to friends, to leaders whom we trust. These people are also likely those with similar mindsets to our own. These influences reinforce our ideas in a circular fashion and insulate us from alternatives leaving us increasingly polarized and at times inappropriately confident in our viewpoints.

For example; there was a time when most of us thought that the world was flat. The earth was just a disc in space. People thought that monsters defended the edges of the oceans. They had no proof that these monsters existed but relied on the legends regurgitated by drunk sailors. The idea that the earth was flat persists to this day.

Flat-earthers have their own websites, books, podcasts and set of beliefs formed around the idea that the earth is flat rather than spherical. Even if we weren't raised from an early age to believe one way or another, the idea is intuitive: on a small scale, the earth seems flat. Very few of us have traveled to the other continents, circumnavigated the earth or seen our home planet from outside our atmosphere. The horizon looks more like a straight line than a curve or a circle.

Still, the concepts of seasons, time zones, day/night, sun rise/sun set, etc. make considerably more sense when viewed in the context of a round earth. The evidence for a round earth in terms of mathematics and satellite imagery is overwhelmingly in favor of our planet being round. I'll grant that these concepts are considerably more subtle and esoteric when compared to the 'flatness' of the central Texas landscape or the open ocean.

The real irony here is that "spherical earth" is still just a model. The earth isn't spherical at all but laterally compressed from pole to pole with a variety of features like mountain ranges and deep ocean trenches. Still, spherical earth is a much better model than "flat earth". So when we teach our children that the earth is round, we acknowledge that we got it wrong before: often teaching that we once thought that the earth was flat. We don't teach both and suggest that children choose knowing that one model is far superior to the other.

Still, when we point out the flaws of their model instead of defending the idea that the earth is flat with logic and evidence, flat-earthers claim insult or tyranny of the majority and run back to their flat-earth cronies. Here, their ideas that the earth is flat is supported by the intuitive evidence advanced and validated by their peers. We end up more certain of our ideas than we were before regardless of their bearing on reality. We do this with other concepts too: alchemy versus chemistry; or astrology versus statistics.

This all goes back to the idea that the models we base our decisions on are important. This is because these models allow us to make predictions about the world around us. These predictions inform our actions. This is why it is important that we subscribe to the most accurate models possible and accept that the best models will be able to adapt and evolve as new information comes to light.

That being said, consider this the next time you tune in to your favorite commentator or download your pet podcast: this perspective has a polar opposite and a range of options in between. Our paternalistic culture often punishes us for changing our minds even in the face of legitimate reason for doing so, calling these people "wishy-washy" or "flip-floppers". Some of these options are indeed silly, like flat earth, but on some level they make sense, conform to tradition, and are appealing emotionally. Have you considered any alternatives to your closely held beliefs? Can you really commit to an idea without critically considering other positions?


  1. I am reminded of political debates, where the test of who "wins" the debate no longer has anything to do with the quality of ideas expressed, but instead is measured by who lands the best insult and produces the best sound clip.

  2. Good work. What you say here is about tunnel vision is consonant with Leary's/Wilson's helpful concept of "reality tunnels." Most people only ever inhabit one reality tunnel, but once you've been in more than one, you trust them much less, which (usually) encourages intellectual humility.

    (As an aside--did you know that in the time of Columbus almost no one thought the earth was flat? That idea was invented, for reasons I don't know, by Washington Irving. The reason Columbus had a hard time getting funding for his voyage was that the scientists of his time believed he was seriously underestimating the size of the earth. They were right, and Columbus was wrong. Had a couple of continents not sat in his way, Columbus and his crew would have all died of exposure and never been heard from again.)

  3. Intellectual integrity and humility are very underrated. None of us is innocent of ego. Admittedly, it feels pretty good to indulge it periodically.

    Now I get to go do some research: Leary/Wilson and Washington Irving's invention of flat earth. Perhaps he's the L. Ron Hubbard of his generation. Thanks!