As a physician, I try to make decisions based on facts, but as a parent I always feel like I’m on shaky ground. There’s never one reliable truth to hang your hat on, so you go with gut feelings, and anecdotes, and advice from your friends, even though their kids are little brats. (If you quote me on that, I’ll deny it).
Over time, I’ve made my peace with this. Parenting is more art than science, and probably always will be. Recently, though, I’ve been worrying about truth again. This time, I’m less concerned about the lack of facts behind my parenting decisions, and more about the erosion of truth in our everyday lives.
In this age of fringe websites, Russian bots and fake news, the truth is more slippery than it used to be. There’s the truth as supported by objective evidence, and then there’s the truth with a capital “T,” as in what we choose to believe. Unfortunately, the two aren’t always the same. Sometimes they aren’t even close.
When we reach the limits of what we can know with certainty, we fill the vast expanse beyond that with conjecture, theory, and most of all, faith. There are more than 4,000 religions in the world, all dedicated to the idea that we should seek to understand even those things which we can’t completely know. Faith, when used in this way, is a powerful force, and a source of human strength. The problem, though, is that we rely on faith even when the evidence disproves it. Ironically, we do this because faith is more reliable than fact.
Whoever invented the phrase “cold, hard facts” didn’t realize that some facts go mushy over time as new facts emerge to put them in a different light. What we thought we knew with certainty can quickly become quaint and dated. Faith, on the other hand, is often described as “unshakable.” Since it doesn’t rely on facts, it’s mostly impervious to them, and there’s great comfort in a truth that doesn’t shift and change over time. Science’s greatest strength — that it evolves and adjusts to new evidence — is also its greatest weakness. For those who seek certainty in an uncertain world, faith is a safer bet.
Though faith often conflicts with science, that hasn’t stopped scientists from studying it. Research shows that when someone is confronted with evidence that contradicts them, it often strengthens their belief in their original position. When the border between fact and faith is clear, they coexist peacefully, but where that border is in dispute, they battle for our hearts and minds.
All of this is just human nature. It was this way for our parents and their parents, and it will be for our children as well. The difference is that the world we live in today provides a constant stream of faith disguised as fact. You can find confirmation for virtually anything, if you look hard enough. Do you believe that the moon landing was faked? That aliens are abducting us and erasing our memories? That copper bracelets prevent cancer? If so, there are others just like you, and you can seek them out with no more than a smartphone and a two-minute web search.
That all sounds kind of silly, until you hear about the darker beliefs that bring people together. There are thriving online communities where people share versions of “truth” that are almost unimaginable: pedophilia, violent misogyny, racial supremacy, pro-anorexia — the list goes on and on. We wouldn’t knowingly expose our kids to such people in a million years, yet we let them wander around in cyberspace where whole online tribes like these are a click away.
As much as we’d like to, we can’t turn back the clock. The internet is here to stay, and it’s foolish to pretend that we can shield our kids from it. Just as we do for sex, drugs and strangers bearing candy, we need to teach our children how to make good decisions when someone offers them an idea.
Here are a few questions that every child should be able to answer:
• How do you know if a source of information is credible?
• How do you get good information from multiple independent sources?
• How do you seek out thoughtful opinions that are different from your own?
• How do you figure out if an idea is true or false, or not yet known?
• What’s the difference between fact and faith?
These are strange times we live in. Every day, the headlines bombard us with distortions, contradictions, and “alternative facts.” It almost feels as if truth is irrelevant — but it’s not. We need the truth and we need to keep faith, now more than ever. We just have to remember which is which.
Jeff Lee has never been abducted by aliens (as far as he knows) in Seattle.