Discussing vs. Teaching

By many accounts, we have a crisis of communication in American society today where people are unable to interact with people who hold diverging opinions and ideas from their own.  Being able to discuss things without taking it personally is an important skill to have, so I was curious when I saw the headline for this article.  Of course knowing the source, I assumed it would be hostile in some regard to a person of faith, but it was almost humorous how the author decides to start out.

By immediately dismissing as ridiculous a set of opinions and ideas on a number of hot-topic issues in American society today.  Not by discussing the actual facts or examining the other position, but simply by dismissing those ideas as obviously wrong and ridiculous and chalking them up to something other than possible alternate interpretations of data.

Admittedly, world-view shapes how we interpret data.  My world-view leads one person to assume that we all evolved from simpler organisms and there should be a fossil trail of some sort that shows that, so that ever fossil has to be fit into an evolutionary spectrum.  I don’t assume that this is how we got here, so I’m not forced to place fossils into such a spectrum.  My world view causes me to assume that scientists are just as prone to sinfulness – or to being exploited by other sinful people – as anyone else, so that companies based on science like pharmaceutical companies shouldn’t be presumed to be error or criminal free simply because they employ scientists.  I don’t doubt the reality of global warming because my understanding is that our planet has gone through plenty of cycles of warming and cooling over time.  But I may doubt that mankind is the cause of this particular warming cycle, and I may doubt the notion that we can actually reverse such a cycle.

What Mr. Shermer doesn’t seem to recognize is that world-view contributes to how everyone interprets data to create facts.   His world-view leads him to discard opposing view-points, and the data that might support them – as erroneous.  He exhibits firm faith in a certain understanding of things despite the fact that evidence is hardly conclusive and exhaustive.  And while I’m no fan of conspiracy theories as a rule, the idea that something sounds conspiratorial is not in and of itself grounds for dismissing the idea out of hand.  The melting point of steel is a scientific matter, is it not?  While I don’t hold to a conspiracy theory on the 9/11 attacks, it seems odd to dismiss such a piece of data or fact as minutiae  as I’m sure that such data contributed not just to the creation of those steel girders, but their selection for use in the building of the Twin Towers in the first place.

The good news is that his advice for dealing with those irrational people who disagree with him actually works in reverse as well.  And if  both sides are willing to abide by these as a means towards deeper conversation, there’s a chance that useful conversation might be had – useful conversation that might ultimately lead one or the other to change their ideas, if not their world-view.  In a surprising turn of events, I’m actually optimistic that such respectful dialogues are the hope of moving towards answering questions and away from demonizing people who disagree with us.

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