Sink or Swim?

Calling on the evening of December 20, 2012, my friend, Shawn Young, invited my wife and I over to his house to eat pizza and drink beer. He invited us to an end of the world party. You may recall that the Mayan calendar ran out on the 20th, so people predicted the apocalypse would occur on the 21st. I declined his kind invitation–although there is probably no better way to experience the end of the world than with friends eating home-made pizza and drinking cold, imported beers–because I was not at my home in Fayetteville; I was on vacation at Jekyll Island.

Jekyll Island is a small, tranquil barrier island in Georgia. It once housed the winter vacation homes of the richest, most powerful industrialists in the world, but today it’s a rapidly developing state park. The area is beautiful, with an abundance of birds, long stretches of beach, and marshes brimming with wildlife. There is not a single stoplight on the island.

My parents were visiting while making the winter pilgrimage from cold and snowy Ohio to warm and sunny Florida. We stayed at the Heron House, a half mile from the beach. We laughed about Shawn’s invitation. The end of the world predictions had been in the news for some time, but no prognosticator could say what hour the world would end, nor adequately defend a theory of how the end would occur.

We all went to bed well before midnight. We slept as the 20th rolled over into the 21st. An hour or so after midnight, my wife and I awoke with a start. There had been a loud boom, followed by a bright light that penetrated our dark bedroom. The room was illuminated by yellow, orange, and white light. The boom was followed by a loud noise that sounded like hot meat sizzling on a grill.

While this was going on, the thought flashed through my mind that the apocalypse had begun. I realized we were out in the middle of nowhere, right on the Atlantic coast, so the potential causes of the disruption of our sleep were limited. The light and sound stopped after a dozen seconds or so. We tried to turn on the lamps, but nothing was working. As I lay there, I had a moment to think about explanations. The likelihood of the apocalypse diminished as the length of time following the boom increased. There was no industry on the island. The noise and lights weren’t consistent with an automobile accident. Some kind of fireworks?

My wife encouraged me to get out of bed and go look around outdoors. I saw my mom in the hallway who asked me what had happened. I had no idea. I walked out the front door into a calm night with bright stars. There was no sign anything unusual had happened. Until I saw a man walk purposefully between my house and the house next door. He climbed into a big white truck parked on the street. Why was he out at this hour of the night? I concluded that he must have lit off fireworks or some kind of bomb and was now fleeing. I wondered what to do. Get his license plate? Instead of driving off, the man backed the truck into the driveway next door. So much for my theory that he was fleeing the scene of a crime. As he stepped down from the truck’s cabin, I asked what happened. The transformer blew out, he said, as he pointed across the street. I looked up from where his truck had been parked and noticed a smoking transformer. My neighbor told me he called the repair crew, so he moved his truck to give the power company room to get their equipment in there to replace it.

During this experience I was a little afraid, somewhat curious, and definitely confused. Unusual or startling events shake us out of our normal mode of perceiving the world. A philosopher of science named Hanson argued years ago that observations were theory-laden. He proposed that we could never really perceive facts directly. We could only observe facts from a theoretical framework. Psychologists call the cognitive structures that shape our perceptions “schemas.” Quine, the most famous American philosopher of his day (who was born in my hometown of Akron, Ohio), would probably agree with Hanson’s basic view. One of Quine’s books, called The Web of Belief, supplied an argument for the coherence theory of truth, which maintains that our statements are not true because they correspond to some external reality; instead, he contended, beliefs are true because they fit into a system of beliefs. Consistency is the criteria he argued that should be used to accept or reject beliefs. No belief is true independent of other beliefs. Ontological truth is relative. We could accept most any belief by revising our view of facts to make the beliefs consistent with a different theory, he said, because theories are underdetermined by empirical evidence.

When I taught the chapter on perception in Introduction to Psychology years ago, I would ask the students to close their eyes. I put a picture on the screen and told half the class to open their eyes and examine a picture of a rat. After a few seconds, I said I was changing the picture, which I was not doing, and I told the other half of the class to open their eyes to study a picture of a man. The same picture could be seen as a bald man’s head or as a rat. I’d ask the first group of students how many had seen a man and the second group how many had seen the rat. Usually, everyone but one or two saw what I told them they would be seeing. The phenomena whereby our expectations affect our perceptions is called perceptual set. Our theories, generalizations, schemas, frames–whatever you want to call these mental structures–affect what we perceive and hold to be true.

The explosive sound that woke me up four years ago, along with the blazing light, the crackling noise, my knowledge of the date, and my expectations all affected how I tried to make sense of what happened. I tried to fit that experience into my web of beliefs. Considering those perceptions independently, all three of my explanations made sense of the “facts.” The world could end with a loud bang, flashing lights and crackling sounds on the day of the winter solstice. Fireworks would explain the same set of facts. Ultimately, though, my investigation uncovered additional facts, making the transformer a far more likely cause because it was more consistent with other useful theories and beliefs.

The problem we face today with so many different viewpoints being represented in the media is that we can make sense of the world in many different ways. There are no facts to prove that the Republican view of how the world works is better than the Democrats’ view. People can adjust their interpretations of the “facts” to make them fit into multiple belief systems. If we heard and believed Hillary Clinton, who said the focus of her career was on helping children, we would probably quickly reject the fake news that claimed she was running a sex ring in the basement of a pizza shop. If instead we believed she was an advocate for the murder of unborn children and a serial liar, it would not be as difficult to add to our existing beliefs that she is a pimp exploiting kids. It’s increasingly easy to find contradictory views about basic facts on the Internet. How, you may wonder, can someone believe something that’s totally false? The answer is that something is false only within a system of beliefs. Fake news may be humorous to some, but to others it may fit well into their cognitive scheme.

To mitigate the vicious circularity of a system of beliefs, people have to challenge their beliefs through investigation, testing them against beliefs they don’t agree with and seeing how far they can push their explanations. If people listen to one TV station’s news, read a single paper, and have friends of like mind, they won’t experience much cognitive dissonance, but they’ll have a simplistic view of the world. The beliefs they have may be consistent with each other, but they won’t help to explain much outside of the facts they choose to consider.

We’ve seen this model in action as many Republicans have changed their attitudes toward the country’s supposed enemies. The Republicans criticized Obama for opening the door to improved relations with the communist nation of Cuba. But, they are shifting their negative views of Russia as Trump states he admires Putin and denies that Russia interfered with the election.

We should revise our theories in light of new evidence. But, when we have to go to great lengths to keep our beliefs and theories consistent, we have to question whether the shift provides greater explanatory power. And when we fail to investigate the facts or prefer to ignore evidence, we must realize that psychological or rhetorical factors are likely at play.

The apocalypse, the perfect storm, may not happen in a single night. We may slowly drown in an ocean of inconsistent beliefs that divide people who are basically the same. As people struggle against one another trying to stay afloat, a few small storms may be all it takes to put an end to many good things if we don’t figure out how to listen to each other and take the time to investigate and test our own beliefs. We have to push back against fake news and challenge belief systems that deny our common humanity, but we also have to listen well and try to determine the reasons why we look at the world in such different ways. Ultimately, we’ll sink or swim together.

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