Truth Is A Four-Letter Word

Facts are irrelevant. Many people today not only ignore facts but willingly embrace obvious lies and outrageously false claims.

Discussions seek not to enlighten but to inflame emotions and whoever shouts the loudest, wins.


I used to be an educator. I taught courses in the Humanities.

But no more. The Liberal Arts are being phased out of colleges these days. I mean, like, with so many embracing “alternative facts” who’s going to sign up for a course designed to “liberate” us from ignorance and superstition?


I regularly read posts from an alumni group of septuagenarians who graduated from an elite liberal arts college. Each day they dissect five or six articles from The Washington Post. They (digitally) whoop and holler at the sins and folly of the opposition.

Fools!” they shout. “Can’t you see?” “Look at the damn evidence, plain as day!”

They knock on doors and write letters to editors and arm themselves with facts and statistics on masking and vaccines, global warming and gun control, attendance figures for Trump’s inauguration, whatever.

They like to think that bombarding people with facts will change their mind.


Facts don’t make no never-mind and logic doesn’t change beliefs that weren’t arrived at logically in the first place. And even reasonable people are often totally irrational.

Why do we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal? Expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of . . . the facts.


Fortunately, our world is a giant petri dish, a cultural test tube chock full of Ph.D. dissertations about how the mind forms beliefs just waiting to be written.

Those alumni geezers, for example, were apoplectic when Biden got trashed for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

He’s only following through on Trump’s deal with the Taliban to leave by May 1st! The Taliban promised not to attack American forces and Trump even released 5000 of their prisoners in a goodwill gesture.”

It’s no puzzle (to science) why Trumpsters flipflopped and attacked the very policy (of Biden’s) they previously supported (as Trump’s). A recent experiment by Hugo Mercier and some European colleagues demonstrates human nature’s “myside bias,” the tendency to spot the mote in your neighbor’s eye and not the beam in your own.


Participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems.


They were then asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them if they identified mistakes. The majority were satisfied with their original choices; fewer than fifteen per cent changed their minds in step two.


Participants were later shown one of the same problems, along with their previous answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. Once again, they were given the chance to change their responses.

But a trick had been played! The answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. About half the participants realized what was going on. Among the other half, suddenly people became a lot more critical. Nearly sixty per cent now rejected the same responses (their own!) that they’d earlier been satisfied with.

Real life politics imitates science, sometimes.


Literally thousands of experiments like Mercier’s – dating back to studies at Stanford University in the 70s which shocked the world by showing that people can’t think straight – have suggested a new conceptual paradigm about the role reason plays in our lives.

(1) The human brain has evolved to discard perfectly valid information when it does not fit into our preferred view. We seek confirmation of what we believe and ignore the contradictory in a way similar to the way the body reacts to aversive stimuli like electric shocks.

Confirmation bias” (what Mercier calls “myside bias”) is kind of like an immune system for uncomfortable thoughts. The brain ‘protects’ in various ways core beliefs integral to our self-image – the self being an extension of a body which the brain is also programmed to protect.


(2) Reason is an evolved trait. Imagine a mouse that thinks the way we do, programmed to confirm her belief that there are no cats around. That would be a serious design flaw in evolution.

To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or under-appreciated threats – the human equivalent of the cat around the corner – it’s a trait that should have been selected against. But the fact that both we and our bias survive proves that it must have (or had) some adaptive function.

[To be fair, our evolutionary forebears didn’t have to worry about masks or climate change or gun control, or any number of other pressing contemporary matters that require a precise understanding of the interrelationship of multiple facts. The reasoning process that worked for Neanderthals often fails us today, and that is thought to be a case of the environment changing too quickly for natural selection to catch up.]

And reason’s original adaptive function, many researchers maintain, was not to solve abstract, logical problems, but to win arguments in order to ensure social cooperation. There was little advantage to reasoning clearly but much to be gained from spotting weakness in an opponent’s position that would ultimately win him over to your side.

Research also suggests that we experience genuine pleasure – a rush of dopamine – when processing information that supports our beliefs. “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong,” one scientist observed.


As a critical thinking experiment I invited the flower-power alumni to give a compelling reason supporting, for example, mask mandates. Not a single one rose to the challenge, although I was roasted over the coals for even suggesting that they needed to think clearly about their beliefs.

Their unspoken assumption seemed to be: if Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post says we should mandate mask wearing, then we should mandate mask wearing!

I am not anti-mask; I am for rationally supporting one’s beliefs. Unfortunately, our minds are not programmed with that as a priority; we were not designed as perfectly rational thinking machines.

When tasked with objectively sifting through evidence our minds typically respond, like Melville’s Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.”


A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”  [Leon Festinger, 1950s]

We know everything you news people say is a lie, made up to hurt Trump; so, WE DON’T LISTEN.  We wait to hear what Mr. Trump says — that’s all we will believe.”  [Unknown source]

We have just learned that not all who reject facts are stiff-necked recalcitrants. Many are under the sway of a brain preprogrammed to protect core beliefs.

The problem remains, however, how do we convince a closed mind that won’t listen to reason and evidence?

There are ways to do that. The truth is out there, Fox Mulder & Dana Scully. But we have to make an effort to locate it. And we have to trust science, not Facebook, to point us in the right direction.


🙂 🙂 🙂

2 Replies to “Truth Is A Four-Letter Word”

  1. John – way too much common sense and deep thinking for me. I’m just trying to make it through the day until the sun drops below the yard arm!

    —————————————–From: “Giblets & Flapdoodle”

    To: Cc: Sent: Friday September 3 2021 1:36:06PM Subject: [New post] Truth Is A Four-Letter Word

    oopsjohn posted: ” Facts are irrelevant. Many people today not only ignore facts but willingly embrace obvious lies and outrageously false claims. Discussions seek not to enlighten but to inflame emotions and whoever shouts the loudest, wins. WHAT A HOOT!”


    1. I hear you, Jim. ‘Tis a special time when the sun goes down and dinner and drinks are on the horizon. 🙂


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