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  • Writer's pictureD. Randall Faro

Believing Is Seeing

The old adage “seeing is believing” originated with 17th century English clergyman Thomas Fuller. He spoke these words in a religious context but his thought has come to have more common use in the secular world. The implied assumption is that we need to see something before we can accept that it really exists. Times have changed. Then again, maybe it has always been this way.

The this way referred to is that oftentimes people have no need whatsoever to “see something” before accepting it as fact. There are countless examples of people believing something that has no basis in fact, and acting on some perception of truth in spite of absolutely no evidence of its veracity, or empirical evidence to the contrary.

Why does some misinformation “stick” in the public consciousness? Why do people continue to believe untrue things, even after they’ve been shown to be a lie? A study by researchers at The University of Western Australia reveals that rejecting information requires more cognitive effort than simply accepting that the message is true. It’s easier for a person to believe a simple lie, than to have one’s mind changed by information that is new and novel. Misinformation is especially likely to stick when it conforms to our pre-existing political, religious, or social point of view. Because of this, ideology and personal worldviews can be especially difficult obstacles to overcome. This means that if you believe something for political or religious reasons, it’s far harder to change a person’s mind and have them understand a fact that differs from that person’s opinion.

The report notes that efforts to retract misinformation often backfire. Contrary to common wisdom, trying to correct misinformation actually may lead to the strengthening of an erroneous belief. The researchers found that it is extremely difficult to dislodge strongly held beliefs through rational or logical methods. This was found to be especially true for social, religious, and politically-held beliefs.

Believing is seeing. If one believes the earth is flat, it will be seen that way. If one believes that people of color are subhuman (compared to Caucasians), they can in good conscience be bought and sold like livestock. If one is convinced that the U.S. was purposely founded as a Christian nation, one might justify taking up arms to keep it “Christian.”

Nadia Brashier, a psychology professor at Purdue University who studies why people fall for fake news and misinformation notes: “If you hear something over and over again, probabilistically, it’s going to be the true thing.” Oftentimes people believe a falsehood to be true simply because they want it to be.

Anyone is entitled to think anyway they wish. But if any given way of thinking is based on demonstrably false premises, it is ludicrous to embrace it. In fact, it can extremely harmful. To wit: according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, over 10 million slaves were shipped to the U.S. between 1525 and 1866.

Responsible people will want to base their thinking on reality . . . on fact rather than fiction, on truth rather than lies. For that to happen, serious homework must be undertaken before reaching conclusions. There will be, of course, different judgments based on the same facts. But there can be no respect for conclusions made – and corresponding actions taken – apart from an intentional and genuine quest to ascertain what is real, what is the truth.

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