September 04, 2021 | If I Beleived in Fairies
Suppose you asked me ten years ago what I thought the greatest threat to humanity was in the modern era. In that case, I might have said war, disease, a radical political ideology, or something like that. These things certainly are grave threats that people face every day, but I have become more convinced than ever that the greatest threat in the modern era will not pull a proverbial trigger but rather convince one to do such things. I’m talking about misinformation and disinformation.
If we’re honest, we’ve all believed something that was not true at some point in our lives and probably still do. These beliefs, whatever they may be, are probably benign. Here are five benign examples of beliefs I once held, but when confronted with new and better data that expounded on why these beliefs were false, I changed my mind.
Left brain people are analytical, right-brain people are creative. This is an old assumption that goes back to the early days of Freudian psychology. However, it is more of a conjecture than anything that caught on as popular “science.” The truth: it’s mostly nonsense that still exists in the collective psyche.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Organizations use this popular tool to help understand how they interact with information and others through the famous four-letter typologies. (I’m an INTP!) MBTI is fun and makes for some interesting conversations, but it’s mostly pseudoscience. And truthfully, you can almost force the test to whatever desired outcome you want if you answer the questions to a specific end. While it may be fun, don’t base any major decisions on it, especially in the workplace.
You get cramps if you go swimming right after you eat. I’m not sure where this came from, but I suspect it had to do with kids rushing through lunch to get back in the pool. The adults, however, wanted to wait a while before going back to pool duty, so they made something like this up. There’s no science behind it, though.
In Columbus’ day, the educated thought the earth was flat. This was popularized by a biography of Columbus written in 1828 and the subsequent poem I memorized in grade school for extra credit. I can still remember it: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” But as it turns out, this is not true. Most people, even ordinary people, knew the earth was round.
Napoleon was short. This myth has even gotten a temperament called the “Napoleon Complex” named after it, suggesting that short stature people try to overcompensate for being small. But if you use the French measurement system during the 1800’s you would read that Napoleon was 5’2” tall. But in this day, the [French inch was slightly longer than the British Imperial inch]((https://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/napoleon-short.htm). He was actually about 5’6”, which was pretty average for a man of that day and age.
Changing beliefs, in theory, should be simple. This, however, is not always the case, especially when the beliefs challenge one’s worldview. Unlike the beliefs above, beliefs that form one’s worldview are deeply set and create strong cognitive biases. Challenges to one’s worldview create a cognitive dissonance that is uncomfortable. Because of this, there are many possible responses, including denying that the new information is real, trying to accommodate it, or sometimes just ignoring it.
As many people know, I write fiction for fun. Fiction is just that – something not written to be true. Fiction tells a story, frequently to entertain or to explorer truth parabolically. In my writing, I try to do both. But as a thought experiment, I wondered what it would be like if I picked up one of my books and read it like a factual account of history. Suppose I read, reread, and absorbed a book in a way that convinced me that it was factual – its pseudohistory, its form of government, its races and people, its religion, its cultures, and many other things. After convincing myself of this, I tried to interact with the world around me. Suddenly, everything about the world seems different. There are no magical swords, elves, large flying reptiles, mind-reading women, and giant birds people fly on. I think people would begin to think I was crazy if I continued to insist that the world of my novels is the same as the real world. Moreover, I would think everyone else was crazy because they did not believe as I do.
It might be tempting to think that my little thought experiment is nothing more than that: a mental exercise with no basis in reality. I would, however, contend that it’s not all that farfetched. One could probably believe his or her entire life thinking that the earth is flat and get along just fine and not hurt anyone. The rest of the world just kind of snickers and goes about their business without thinking much about it. However, not all beliefs are like that. Some beliefs have consequences that can be deadly. When you meet people like this, it can often be mind-blowing how one could be so resistant to well-founded facts. In my books, some of the characters can heal wounds by humming and calling on magical powers. Suppose I was convinced that this was the way to heal myself. In that case, I might forego lifesaving medical treatments predicated on a false belief. In reality, though, there are many who do the same—basing medical decisions on false information, and they pay dearly.
So the burning question is, what can be done about it? Truthfully, I’m not sure. Media companies are fighting to turn back the tide of misinformation, especially about things that could be life-threatening. However, it seems that no matter what, there’s still going to be a large contingency of people who, for whatever reason, will continue to believe false information. I’ll continue to ask myself to stay curious because, as far as I know, that’s the only antidote to the constant stream of nonsense that we wade through daily. Also, it’s essential to remain diplomatic when dealing with beliefs. Sharing correct information is helpful to an extent, but it also takes a lot of patience and grace when dealing with these sorts of things. As far as the threat goes, I can only remain hopeful. There will be casualties, but truth can prevail.