The challenges of this time humble me as a science writer and educator. As I participate in discussions about many of the most serious and pressing problems now facing our country and world – problems ranging from vaccine hesitancy to racism, from race relations to climate change – one overarching meta-problem frequently recurs. Coming from different universes of information and social comparison, we don’t agree on the relevant facts.
Theodore Parker once stated that facts are “true, independent of all human opinion.” That is, although we may have wishes for what’s true, previous beliefs about what’s true, and groups telling us what’s true, none of this compares with what’s actually true. Reality has a life of its own.
In the past, we could at least sometimes come together as a people, even if we disagreed on initial solutions to problems, because we agreed on relevant facts. This has largely changed. As a result, we are increasingly polarized and fractured, often incapable of consensus, compromise, civil discourse, and creative problem-solving.
One of the purposes of education is to prepare us to be able to separate fact from fiction. Since many of the problems noted above concern questions about how the world works, science education, in particular, seems at least partly to blame.
What do we need to be able to do to think critically, especially in the scientific realm, as we wrestle with the problems of this time? Below are six essential skills we need as citizens, at least as a start.
As my wife and I walked from the front doors to the worship center of the exponentially growing church we used to attend in the mid-1990s, we often remarked how much relational tension filled the hallways. Young couples frequently walked together in silence, their faces sometimes providing brief glimpses of the irritation they felt toward each other. Moms and dads regularly yelled at kids to get them to Sunday school. Friends and acquaintances mostly kept to themselves.
People had good reason for waking up early on a Sunday morning to pack the auditorium. The young preacher challenged us with mind-stretching insights that directly applied to our lives. The band led us into worship experiences that connected us with God in ways that melted our selves into something larger.
During these times of shared praise, in particular, emotion poured out of many. I often cried during songs, for example, tears pouring down my face. Sometimes, I’d be unable to continue singing, in fact, feeling so “choked up.” There were even a few times when I felt so overwhelmed I had to physically brace myself with the chair in front of me because I was literally “weak in the knees.”
When we left the worship space, my wife and I frequently commented how those around us seemed palpably different than when they arrived. Not everything was perfect, of course, but tension had lifted. Young couples looked more in love, holding hands on their way out the door. Families played. Others welcomed conversation over coffee and donuts.
If this had been a one-time occurrence, I may not have thought much of it. But, it was so predictable, it was almost comical. Pretty much every week, the same basic story unfolded: people were being transformed.
Maybe the most notable observation we made, though, at least in retrospect, occurred when we left the church building and walked back to our car. The parking lot typically was much fuller than when we arrived, and we often were struck by the range of political bumper stickers. Frequently, we’d see people part ways in the parking lot with a handshake or hug, only to enter cars with stickers suggesting different political affiliations.
As a young Ph.D. student studying Psychology at the University of Minnesota at the time, I wondered: what might help account for the powerful positive effects we were observing? Nothing in psychological science seemed capable of providing a good explanation.
Note: It’s my honor and joy that my former student, Whitney Harper, guest authored the post below. Whitney was a student of mine when I taught in Scotland in 2009, and we have remained close ever since. She now is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.
In the United States we like to claim separation of church and state, but the reality is much more complicated. Although our minds may automatically be drawn to the Religious Right as the main violator of this separation, research has shown Democratic candidates have taken note, and are also making use of religious language to frame their stances.
In contrast to Republican candidates’ overt use of religious language to frame debates surrounding abortion, Christianity’s role in the public sphere, and “family values,” Democratic candidates tend to take a more subtle approach, being careful not to alienate non-Christian voters, but also making sure to use phrases that will perk up the ears of Christians. They tend to use religious language to frame care for the poor, healthcare reform, and concern for racism, sexism, and the environment; often centering their religious rhetoric on Jesus’ petition to care for “the least of these.” Although these references aren’t as explicit as Republicans,’ they have started to persuade more Christian voters to the Democratic Party, building up the more recently established “Religious Left.”
How has religious language been so successful not only in the Republican Party, but also in a party that has largely taken a more “secular” stance? Recent research can be especially helpful in answering this question.
A body of psychological research consistently shows that voters make their decisions primarily based on a “gut” feeling, and that religious language is especially helpful for speaking to this intuitive sense. For example, in his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines moral intuitions in relation to religion and politics in the United States. He argues that, when it comes to religion and politics – and really any of our decision-making – “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (italics in the original). By this, Haidt means that as much as people want to believe they make decisions rationally and consciously, the reality is that almost all of our reasoning is unconscious and driven by instinct and emotion. He elaborates:
“The central metaphor . . . is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior” (italics in the original).
In other words, most of the choices we make – including how religious we are, who we vote for, and how we make moral decisions – are driven by emotion. We then create reasons and justifications after the fact. We feel to our very core our beliefs are the correct ones – to the point that words can’t fully explain why, as much as we may try – and this strong urge makes it easier to dismiss other views. This is what psychologists call the confirmation bias: the act of ignoring information that contradicts what we already think and seeking out information that reaffirms what we already believe.
This strong emotional gut-level reaction is what makes the coupling of religious and political language so powerful in a voter’s decision making. For example, for several decades the pro-life stance has been drilled into the majority of conservative Christians’ minds as the stance for Christians to look for when voting. Over time, this has strengthened Christian voters’ instinctive responses to “pro-life” language. Haidt continues:
Few of us have ever dealt with a situation that feels as uncertain, unpredictable, and uncontrollable as the novel coronavirus pandemic. At this early stage, we don’t possess good information about how people are doing psychologically, but many behavioral scientists wonder how individuals are thinking, feeling, or acting differently.
Some insight may be found in a seminal research article from 2008, in which Aaron Kay and his colleagues write:
Imagine a glass that only when full represents a given individual’s preferred level of perceived order within his or her environment. As one way to fill this glass, this individual might rely on his or her perceptions of personal control over his or her outcomes: To guard against perceptions of randomness in the world, that is, he or she can affirm the belief that whatever happens, good or bad, will be due to his or her own actions and therefore not random. Often, however, such perceptions will only partially fill the glass because levels of perceived personal control, for a variety of reasons, tend to fluctuate. Much of the time, therefore, to fill the glass completely, he or she will need to complement these beliefs in personal control with one or more external systems of control.
Source: Anna Shvets | Pexels
In other words, we all desire a certain amount of order and control. When that is lacking in our environment – such as in a time of pandemic – we look for ways to find it. We do what we can to personally increase feelings of order and control to compensate for what’s happening around us, sometimes in some interesting ways (hoarding toilet paper). The reality, though, is we humans only have so much control over what happens in life, and when that becomes evident to us – as is the case now – we depend more on secondary sources.
Kay and colleagues interestingly studied two such sources of secondary control in their research: (1) the government and (2) God.
I’m currently on teaching sabbatical, which gives me more time to pursue other interests and writings. I’ll be posting more writing here soon. Today, though, I wanted to share an op-ed I wrote for MinnPost about a series of interviews I’ve done this semester with faculty about teaching in higher education. It addresses the hesitancy of some people to accept the values of colleges and universities, and maybe offers a bit of hope.
We may be bearing witness to the dawning of a new human experience: “warm weather ambivalence.” This experience may take somewhat different forms in different locations, but in places where there are four seasons, above average temperatures in Fall, Winter, and Spring may yield mixed feelings for some people. The recent unseasonably warm weather across much of the United States is illustrative. On one hand, we are delighted by the warmth as we feel the energy of the sun on our skin and we feel freed from some of the constraints of Winter. On the other hand, some of us sense that something has changed – and is changing – for the worse.
I confess: I have been overly obsessed with American politics for the past 6 months.
This started innocently enough when, last fall, I tried to more deeply engage my Psychology of Personality in social and political issues by having them do case analyses of the two presidential candidates. Although I tried to balance the focus, most media and student attention was focused on Donald Trump, including this outstanding psychological profile of Mr. Trump by my favorite contemporary personality psychologist, Dan McAdams. Through lively discussions with my unusually informed students, I was sucked in.