Friday, January 2, 2009

Dan Gardner on Why He Writes

Dan Gardner-Provocateur

Dan Gardner opens his article by provocatively telling us that he doesn't care what his readers think. Now firmly gripping our attention, he moves on to a discussion of Sir Francis Bacon's observation that
"human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion ... draws all things else to support and agree with it".
Fast forward 300 years and Bertrand Russell tells us:
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.
Modern psychologists have dubbed it "confirmation bias." As Dan points out, once we have an opinion of any sort, we seek to confirm it. He equates surrounding oneself with opinions that confirm our beliefs (imagine George Bush, in bath robe and slippers, watching Fox News), with slipping into a warm bath.

As an opinion writer, he sees his role as akin to turning on the cold tap while we relax in comfort. He encourages us to:
look for information that contradicts your views and give it real consideration -- while remaining aware that the brain that is doing the considering is biased against it.
Yes, he makes me think. A cold shower is good for the soul and wakens the brain. Of course, that being said, I notice that I continue to hold tightly on to many opinions, such as:
  • A world that continues to increase consumption of material goods is on a collision course with physical reality
  • George W. Bush has been the worst President of the United States in my living memory
  • The term "Fox News" is an oxymoron, and
  • Stephen Harper and his brand of Conservatism will never get my vote
Of course, truth, as is often said, is stranger than fiction. What is most important is that I own my biases, and keep an open mind. However, in the same breath, I am deeply concerned that the planet may not afford us the time for such petulant navel gazing. It has been suggested by many that ultimately, the planet doesn't care one way or the other if the human species continues to exist. It will continue to exist with, or without us. If it had the opportunity to voice an opinion on such a matter, it probably would prefer that we not be here, given the mess we are creating.

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