A Passionate Call for a Commitment to the Truth
It is time to stand up for the truth--and mean it.
Posted March 9, 2018
This blog is authored by Dr. Gena Gorlin (brief bio below), whom I met recently at a conference. I was deeply impressed with her broad knowledge of both philosophy and psychology and when she shared this piece with me, I gladly offered to place it on my blog as it was very consistent with my own views on valuing intellectual integrity. My only substantive edit was to the title, as that captures how I experienced her message.
Amid the culture-wide “crisis of credibility” that has gripped our media, our politics, and our science, it seems like our hold on reality is getting more tenuous every day. Indeed, people on both sides of the political aisle are increasingly worried about the implications of living in a “post-truth” world of “alternative facts” and “fake news” reports. But what would it take to ground ourselves more firmly in reality? How do we translate these amorphous worries into a genuine, principled defense of the truth?
Against today’s fractious political backdrop, appealing to the “principled defense” of anything may seem counterproductive, even dangerous. After all, isn’t it in defense of such principles as “in-group loyalty” (which conservatives rate as being among their highest moral concerns) that Trump’s supporters stand by him even when he tells blatant lies and threatens their constitutional rights? We know what form such “in-group loyalty” can take at its extremes; and lest we forget, we have a growing number of chilling news headlines to remind us. Meanwhile, isn’t it in defense of such principles as “caring for the weak” (which liberals rate as one of their top moral concerns) that some of Trump’s opponents are calling for censorship on campuses and even resorting to violent protests of their own?
Indeed, people of all political persuasions seem increasingly willing to uphold their “principles” at any price—including the price of bending or disregarding reality. A recent meta-analysis of 41 studies on partisan bias revealed that liberal and conservative participants show equally strong tendencies to distort factual information in line with their respective ideologies. For instance, participants rated the same scientific study as being more methodologically rigorous when told that the results supported versus opposed their political views. Similarly, participants evaluated the same policy proposal more favorably when told it had been endorsed by members of their party, and vice versa. Levels of bias were near-identical among liberal and conservative participants.
Perhaps, then, the one moral concern that most desperately needs defending is the one that would lend credibility to all the rest: loyalty to the truth. Without a commitment to grounding beliefs in what is true, we lack a fundamental motivation to check and validate (and, if need be, abandon or revise) whatever principles we happen to ingest from parents, peers, and professors. As a result, our “moral concerns”—rather than guiding us in the pursuit of a noble vision—may instead urge us blindly down the path of least emotional resistance.
To become credible champions of truth and goodness, we must first earn our own credibility. And to do so, we must set our integrity to the facts as our first, most non-negotiable moral concern. Once we internalize the conviction that nothing can be more sacred than the facts, we may be able to count on ourselves to sort the truth from the fiction, even when parts of our own self-concept are at stake.
Make no mistake, this is hard to do. Consider, for example, how much more pleasant it is to lampoon the most ludicrous version of a view you disagree with, than it is to find and listen intently to its most compelling advocates. Or how much more comfortable it is to get your news from media outlets that share your ideological leanings, than to seek out both sides of every story. For that matter, think how much easier it is to showcase your “in-group loyalty” by unquestioningly supporting your party—or showcase your “caring for the weak” by avoiding words and ideas that might offend someone—than to pursue the facts wherever they lead, even at the risk of disloyalty or hurt feelings.
Unfortunately, the effect of habitually choosing the comfortable but uninformed path in such instances is a lack of self-credibility, as described in my recent work. My proposed intervention, largely drawn from empirically supported principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, begins with an acknowledgment that the pursuit of truth is an extremely difficult enterprise—and you will sometimes screw it up. The next step is to sit down and make a written inventory of all the feared or suspected truths you tend to avoid. This could be anything from “I should call my dentist about this toothache,” to “I resent my kids,” to “I’ve been slacking at my job,” to “I don’t really understand the evidence for/against ‘climate change.’” No editing or evaluating yet; just write them down as they occur to you.
If you do this in earnest, it will be an uncomfortable procedure. Then again, there is also a clean, authentic pride that comes with facing the things you have been hiding from. Notice and savor that feeling.
Having listed your items, the next step is to examine them honestly and rationally. For each one, ask yourself: Is this actually true? Once you have asked yourself this question, you may find that there is a lot of work to do to answer it, but also that many tools exist to help you. You may need to do some research, consult with the relevant experts, gather more data, and so forth. And you may still not have enough information to know for sure (in which case you should make a note of that). You might also discover that some of your “feared truths” are exaggerated or based in faulty logic, while others point to real (albeit complicated and/or painful) facts that you will now need to deal with. But better now than later, when they grow far more complicated and painful for you.
Finally, and critically, make this process a part of your regular, daily routine. Set a reminder if need-be.
Of course, this exercise will not change your habits overnight. But related research on “debiasing” training suggests that the habit of monitoring and logically examining our biases is a learnable skill that improves with practice. Other research suggests that affirming an important personal value by simply writing about it can make us more receptive to information that threatens our beliefs. Taken together, this research suggests that we can improve our integrity to the facts, if we work at it and remember why it matters. Moreover, studies have shown that those who more strongly identify with honesty-related values are less tempted to cheat for money, even when they are too tired to think about it. Thus we have reason to expect that, after working to earn your own trust and credibility through consistent honesty with yourself, you will be less tempted to sell out that honesty for the sake of a moment’s reduced discomfort. It will simply be worth too much to you.
In this manner, a steadfast allegiance to the truth can provide the foundation for thinking critically about today’s moral and political controversies. Building such a foundation is difficult, and it takes time; but it is a small price to pay for a mind more firmly rooted in reality.
Bio: Eugenia (Gena) Gorlin, Ph.D., will be joining the clinical psychology faculty of the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University next Fall. Currently she is completing her post-doctoral fellowship at Boston University, where she conducts clinical research in the Translational Research Program and provides psychotherapy at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and completed her psychology residency training at Brown University. She is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the theory and treatment of anxiety, depression, motivational deficits, and impulse control disorders.