Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Compels Us to Believe Lies?

The news is certainly compelling! Here is a lady serving in the a government administration. Lady gives speech. Speech is about discriminating against a white client who has a haughty attitude. Video shows speech and goes viral, with the help of certain "news" agency.

Other news agencies pick up on it. Prominent organizations call for lady to be fired, and she is.

Except that the story which got Shirley Sherrod fired was a lie -- a vicious, terrible distortion of the truth -- and no one bothered to get the lady's explanation. By twisting perceptions of time, and cutting the video at a particular place, Shirley was presented as a black racist in the Obama administration, and fired.

And ohhh, how many people believed she was guilty as charged!

What is it that compels us to believe lies? We do, you know. We hear them and believe them. We tell them, and wind up believing them even though we know they are lies. Somehow lies can compel belief far stronger than truth can, and we fall prey to them. We need to know why so we can control this tendency instead of the tendency controlling us.

We all prejudge and draw conclusions before all the facts are in. How we judge depends on what perspectives we have going into the situation. If you are a Democrat and believe that people need help, then you will believe Republicans are hardhearted for voting against unemployment benefits. If you are a Republican and believe that people are milking the system, you will believe that Democrats are too softhearted and are simply gullible. The judgment depends upon your value set.

Mind you, the typical Republican won't go out to meet the unemployed and understand their desperate situation. Neither will the typical Democrat go examine the cases of fraudulent claims. They have enough information to suit them, and more information would upset their sense of certitude.

"I know what I believe. Don't confuse me with facts."

Situations are complex. To save time and energy, we judge first, then look at evidence later. This is likely an evolutionary adaptation to being hunted. Better to flee first than think too much and get munched! But in a civilized society, the "fight or flight" reaction is not very efficient. And once you have reacted, you have the tendency to support your reaction rather than support acting another way. We all want to be "right." So we select the evidence that supports our position and reject the evidence that does not.

In cases where partial memory is relied on, the brain fills in the gaps in its own way -- according to the bias of the owner. This is why some women who were raped have misidentified their attacker, and helped send an innocent person to prison. They genuinely believe they made the correct identification, the police and prosecutors support them, and the ones they identify are convicted. But all too often, it is based on a lie. Scores of convicted rapists have been exonerated once the DNA evidence has been examined.

Unscrupulous people take advantage of our tendency to believe lies, so they construct scenarios that certain people will find irresistibly believable. Advertisers, political spin doctors, con artists, certain religious leaders -- want to form your perception of reality for you. Selecting which parts of the truth will be shown can create a lie as well. People may know they are being victimized, but not know how to stop it.

For Shirley Sherrod, the lie about her nearly destroyed her life. It was only when someone stopped and actually listened to her that the lie was broken. So here are some tips on how to keep from being fooled by lies and liars.

First, doubt your own certitude. That is, you aren't always right. You aren't God. Once you admit that you don't know all the facts and can be wrong, there is a way to change the outcome.

Second, be willing to listen to the other side -- even if they are not willing to listen in return. Truth is inevitably balanced. Truth is not a fringe holding. Perhaps the information the person conveys is completely unreliable -- you have still been willing to listen to it.

Third, be suspicious, even of good news or news you are inclined to jump at believing. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Remember that fish get hooked by tempting bait, and someone may know what tempts you. Better to forestall judgment and investigate further than jumping on a bandwagon or biting the hook.

We are all very visual. If we see it for ourselves, we tend to believe it. It used to be that video or picture evidence was reliable. But in today's age of Photoshop and video editing, pictures can be altered and videos can be manipulated. Picture and video may be telling lies, too. So be suspicious!

Fourth, recognize the human condition. We are programmed (DNA) and conditioned (socially) both to lie and to believe lies. It is rare for someone to have a clear grasp of the truth, unencumbered by some falsehoods on the matter. Your sources can lie or can be deceived. Yes, your enemies lie. But so do your friends (maybe less often, but they ARE human!), and most importantly, so do you and me. We can't help it. We are what we are.

Fifth, wanting to believe something doesn't mean we should believe it. The fact that you want to believe something indicates that your prejudices are oriented in that way. The act of prejudging a situation is not wrong by itself. We are wired to do that. However, we should remember that prejudging can lead us to wrong conclusions. So even if we want to believe a particular way, we should be willing to investigate alternatives.

Sixth, remember we can do better. We may be what we are, but we also have a choice to make ourselves better. By remembering our own tendencies, we can act to balance them and gain more truth with less error.

Let me know what you think. Where do you see yourself as most vulnerable and why? Once we do this kind of self-reflection, we can begin to make progress.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How a Stomach Ache Changed the World

What causes ulcers? How do we know what causes ulcers?

Think about it for a moment. Don't cheat by looking ahead.

When we talk about learning and knowledge and matters of faith and science, then these questions illustrate some important principles. Science is a human activity. Obtaining knowledge can be a tricky process.

Before 1982, doctors knew what caused ulcers. Too much acid caused ulcers, and usually as a result of stress. You might be a successful businessman, but if you had ulcers, it indicated something wrong with your mental health. Your stress might be caused by remembering your overanxious mother.

How did we treat ulcers? Antacids were the first line. Rest and relaxation was prescribed to help you reduce stress. Go on vacation -- but take the antacids with you in case you were too stressed there. If you can't handle the stress, change your job to something less stressful! And yes, psychotherapy would be in order. You just have to get that issue with your mother resolved.

So now we visit an Australian team of scientists who were looking at the corpses of people who had died from ulcers. They noticed that small, curve, rod-shaped bacteria were always found in the inflamed tissue, and the more inflamed the tissue was, the more bacteria was present.

This was rather a puzzler. First of all, they knew about this bacteria, H. pylori. You couldn't culture it. Besides, the stomach was an acid environment. Stuff that went into the stomach got digested. These particular stomachs especially. Lots of acid.

Still, that every corpse was infected with H. pylori was strange. So they tried culturing the bacteria, of course, without success. You just couldn't culture it. That is, until a culture sample was left for six days by accident, instead of the standard two days. So they discovered that the bacteria could be cultured after all, and that the bacteria grew slowly.

So now they could culture the bacteria. That was good. But there wasn't any proof that the bacteria caused the ulcers. Maybe the bacteria were able to infect the stomach because of the ulcer? After all, many people had H. pylori in their system, but did not have ulcers.

You see, medicine has rules for understanding disease. If you want to prove that an organism like bacteria causes a disease, there are some principles to follow. Koch's Postulates say that the organism should be found in the bodies of those with the disease (and not in the bodies of those without the disease). The pattern of infection should explain the lesions. So then, grow the germ outside the body, introduce the germ to a new, disease-free body, cause the disease, and see if the pattern of infections there explain the lesions. Neat and nice.

Except that this involves people. It is unethical to try to cause disease in a person. But the researchers believed they were onto something, so Marshall and anther volunteer ingested a culture of H. pylori.

That's right, they cultured a sample, put the bacteria in a beaker with water, stirred, and down the hatch. Feel free to be ill at the thought. But they did it!

In very little time, they had developed gastritis -- an inflammation of the lining of the stomach. At that point, they were well on the way to developing ulcers, but they took antibiotics to kill the infection they knew was there. They recovered and did not develop ulcers.

The researchers hadn't proven that H. pylori caused ulcers. They were close, but they stopped short of it. Still, their experiment suggested a new treatment for ulcers. Use antacids to lower the acid levels of the stomach, and use antibiotics to cure the infection. The results? For the first time, ulcers became curable.

Warren and Marshall eventually won a Nobel prize for their work. They had completely changed a medical paradigm. Instead of the "stress causes ulcers" notion, they substituted, "H. pylori causes ulcers. And if you have little beasties eating holes in your stomach, you are going to have stress, you betcha."

But even today you will hear people say that stress causes ulcers. Old "knowledge" is hard to replace, even when the new knowledge is so much better.

Which brings up a few things about how we know things.

First of all, we don't always know what we think we do. It pays to try different approaches, even if you fail with most of them. Yes, rules are still important, but you can use the rules to explore different ways to do things.

Creationists criticize science for changing. But change is what makes science so important. If you want to understand a problem, you have to follow the pattern of evidence. So what if you don't understand it all? Partial success is still success, and can be used to help you even further.

You learn things by doing, by trying, by pushing the envelope, and even by mistakes and serendipity. Just pay attention. Even the authorities are wrong from time to time. It makes sense to check things out.

Other things that brought about this learning were volunteering and collaboration. Scientists are pretty good at those things. They worked this problem hands-on, and they made a discovery that changed our world. We now know what causes ulcers, and we can treat them effectively. From once being a major cause of death, ulcers now rank as an annoyance.

What do you know? How do you know it? Are you so sure that you wouldn't be willing to have your mind changed if the evidence indicated it?

Learning is a human endeavor. Start exploring and see what you can discover, too.