Faith and The Universal Yes Man

Faith is a wonderful and a terrible thing, and unfortunately I think it might be at the root of many of the problems plaguing our society today.

I’m not talking about religion, well  not exclusively about religion. To me faith is any complete and unquestioning belief in a person, or an idea, or an institution, or an information source that allows no deviation from the message.

The way I see it, having faith is a necessity. It’s the foundation on which we build our lives. We need trusted sources of information. These might be holy books, or pundits, or authors, or researchers, or professors, or online communities. For most of us, it’s several of these in combination.

These information streams become heuristics for living our lives. They shape our self-images. They provide stability, and certainty, and a starting point for our dreams and plans. Our sources may differ, but we all have these core information streams that guide us.

But faith in these streams also creates problems. See faith cannot coexist with logic. When a debated question comes down to diametrically opposed facts, the only way to settle the point is for one side to agree that their trusted source is wrong. The fall back position becomes “I don’t believe that”. All evidence is useless in the face of a failure to accept the validity of the opposing source’s facts and when that happens the discussion is over. These sorts of justifications were common in the recent (2016) US Presidential election for both the candidates and the voters.

The problem that arises is that sometimes our faith really is misplaced.

 

People are wrong. Some sources have their own agendas. Sometimes they only have part of the picture and are making incorrect inferences from that incomplete information. Sometimes facts are colored by personal experience and perspective. Any of these can lead those who follow them astray.

Of course none of this is new. As long as there has been a human race, there have been irreconcilable questions of faith. What is new is that we have a massive justification engine (Google) always within reach.

In a few clicks  support can be found for any position one might take. In a few more you can find just as many sites backing an opposing one. Doubt is universal, and so the question again becomes one of faith, not facts. You choose which source to believe and you move forward.

Complicating this is ego. In our newly interconnected world, our beliefs are often on display. With every share, and every like, and every accepted friend request, we’re aligning ourselves behind our chosen sources. We’re also building a complex network of very visible alliances.

Inevitably, those people and causes with whom we are aligned diverge from our personal beliefs. It’s just not very likely that we’ll continuously agree in all respects with another human being, or with a movement composed of them. Usually it’s in small ways at first, but eventually some of  those divides can become significant. When that happens, our ego is a barrier to changing direction.

We all hate to publicly admit we were wrong.

In the past the audience for such a reversal was limited, and the ego barrier was small. Today that’s different. The most recent number I could find for the average number of Facebook friends was 338 (the median was 200) in 2014. I think it’s a safe assumption that that number is much higher two years later. Friend lists tend to be mostly family and well… friends, i.e. people like us. That’s a lot of people to disappoint.

When that moment arrives, it is far easier, for some, to consult Google, or as I call it, the universal yes-man. It takes a lot more self-confidence to endure the displeasure of your friend list. Certainly this isn’t the case for everyone, but many have been conditioned by the like-engine to avoid disappointing their audience at all costs.

So where does that leave us?

In the first place, it’s important to question your faith.

I understand that it’s difficult, but if the writers and news feeds and pundits and other sources that you’ve built your foundation upon are unable to withstand scrutiny from another perspective, or if their facts are not verifiable through other sources, they are unworthy of your faith. Yes, this takes work, but isn’t it time well invested?

Second, you must understand that algorithms are not always your friends.

Search algorithms are intended to return results that are similar to things you’ve enjoyed or searched for in the past. They only want to make you happy. Unfortunately that can give you a warped view of the world if you’re not careful. By all means use Google to your advantage, but be careful to research both sides of the argument. Look at the quoted facts and trace them to their sources. Understand which sites are merely trying to drive traffic with inflammatory headlines and sensationalized perspectives. Make an informed choice.

Finally, be brave.

It may seem like you will be ridiculed, or ostracized, or heckled, or even attacked for failing to follow the party line. You may be called a flip-flopper or a fence-sitter or something even worse. The thing is, none of that matters. The people who are worth being around will respect you for your courage and will understand your dissent. As I said earlier, no one completely agrees with every aspect of the party line. Whether the subject is politics, or religion, or nutrition, or education, each true opinion is as unique as a snowflake. Own yours and the honest people will respect that.

 

Thad
I am addicted to learning about why. From nutrition to neuroscience and philosophy to behavioral economics I am always seeking to understand. When I am not completely immersed in the latest book to catch my eye or practicing Brazilian jujitsu, I am usually cooking for my wonderful wife, playing with my two beautiful kids or out running with one of our dogs.

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