Our shared commitment to finding truth

Suppose you and I have fundamentally different views on an issue of the day. (For example, let’s say one of us thinks climate change is caused by human activity and one of us thinks it’s not. Or one of us thinks immigrants improve the economy and one of us thinks they weaken it.) Let us have the grace to put aside for the moment the question of which view (if either) is true. Instead, let us share in our outrage that at least one (and perhaps both) of us is receiving fundamentally misleading information!

We all seek truth, and we all hope to act in a way that leaves the world better for our families and communities. We desperately need each other’s help in finding ways to sort out what is reliable and what is not in this internet age of fake news, corporate spin, echo chambers and political grandstanding. And we all fall victim to confirmation bias every day of the week. The truth is out there — but it is increasingly complex, increasingly context-dependent, and increasingly difficult to untangle from all the surrounding noise. Information is power, so what strategies can we use to seek reliable sources of information? How can we be reliable sources of information? Sources that admit and actively correct their own mistakes?

Suppose one of us has been advocating all our life for greenhouse gas reductions and it turns out that climate change is no big deal and all we have accomplished is to destroy good jobs in the oil and gas industry and upend the surrounding communities. Or suppose one of us has spent our life working to protect the oil and gas economy and it turns out that the resulting greenhouse gases are leading to floods, droughts, famines, war, and destruction all over the world. Or maybe the truth is somewhere in between. We all need each other’s support and compassion if we are to find truth together and grieve and forgive our own culpability in it.


Algorithms as a way to avoid conversation

“My observation is that these algorithms — they don’t show up randomly. They show up when there’s a really difficult conversation that people want to avoid. Like, ‘We don’t know what makes a good teacher, and different people have different opinions about that, so let’s just bypass this conversation by having an algorithm score teachers.’ Or: ‘We don’t know what prison is really for, you know? Let’s have a way of deciding how long to sentence somebody.’ We introduce these ‘silver bullet’ mathematical algorithms because we don’t want to have a conversation.”

-Cathy O’Neil (via 99% Invisible)

Esteemed discipline

“Valuable collaborators in the evolution of this book have been the people in my [psychotherapy] practice who have worked so unreservedly to develop themselves and their lives. I am obliged not to name them. Perhaps, in another era, entering into psychotherapy will be defined not as remediation for personal failure, but as an esteemed discipline for evolving one’s ability to contribute.”

-Rosamund Stone Zander,
The Art of Possibility (Acknowledgements, p.203)

Observing a system

“Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves… Learn its history… If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system — peoples’ memories are not always reliable when it comes to timing… Starting with the behavior of the system forces you to focus on facts, not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others…

“It’s especially interesting to watch how the various elements in the system do or do not vary together… Every selectman in the state of New Hampshire seems to be positive that growth in a town will lower taxes, but if you plot growth rates against tax rates, you find a scatter as random as the stars in a New Hampshire winter sky. There is no discernible relationship at all.”

-Donella H. Meadows,
Thinking in Systems (2008, p.170-171)