Recalibrating our filtersFebruary 18, 2011
I’m interested in the process by which we accept some claims and reject others. I don’t subscribe to Bertrand Russell’s views generally, but in this instance, I couldn’t agree more:
If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.
For instance, it is no coincidence that “birthers” (conspiracy theorists who question whether Obama was born in America) tend to come from the Republican or libertarian ranks. Despite the production of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate, birthers remain unconvinced, insisting that it must be a forgery. Would they apply such fanatical skepticism to the credentials of the candidate of their choice? Of course not.
I am by no means a psychologist. But it strikes me that we all employ these mental filters because we need them. We simply don’t have the time to scrutinize carefully the reliability of everything we hear. So we lend quick assent to that which accords with our preconceived ideas and we reserve most of our skepticism for claims that contradict those ideas.
But part of the process of intellectual maturity is realizing that our filters may require correction. It means learning to hold up to the light of skeptical inquiry even those claims we would like to be true. And it means learning not to reject out of hand (or demand unrealistic levels of proof for) those claims that, if true, would force us to recalibrate our filters.