Sunday, July 8, 2018

Politics of Attitude: What is the truth?

We practice several intellectually devious approaches to justify our views and prove ourselves right in our pursuit of truth.

by Ruwantissa Abeyratne-
All control, in essence, is about who controls the truth.
― Joseph Rain, The Unfinished Book About Who We Are
( July 6, 2018, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Recently, there was a furore in the Sri Lankan Parliament about a contentious article published in The New York Times of 25 June 2018 titled “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port”.  It claimed that: “Every time Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned to his Chinese allies for loans and assistance with an ambitious port project, the answer was yes”; and followed after a few sentences with the conclusion that: “And then the port became China’s”.  The Sri Lankan news portal Ada Derana reported that the Chinese Embassy in Colombo  issued a response to the article saying that: “The Embassy has noticed the New York Times’ article published on June 25, as well as the clarifications and responses by various parties from Sri Lanka, criticizing it full of political prejudice and completely inconsistent with the fact”. Ada Derana quoted the Embassy as also saying: “China has always been pursuing a friendly that policy toward Sri Lanka, firmly supporting the latter’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and opposing any country’s interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka”.
This article is not about the credibility or authenticity of the article in question.  Instead, it will discuss some psychological dimensions that have steered politics from being ideological to attitudinal. To accomplish this, one has to determine what is the truth, and in turn, delve into some psycho sociological factors.
Acclaimed cognitive neuroscience academic Tali Sharot, in her book The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others says: “Seeking out and interpreting data in a way that strengthens our preestablished opinions is known as the confirmation bias” – a term the author uses to explain that some reject evidence that do not fit their pre-conceived notions and opinions.  An example given is how people with strong analytical skills could spin and make data emollient to justify an argument could use such data to convince those with a mindset that could be easily receptive towards the data presented.  There are many election campaigns around the world where this phenomenon worked to favour one candidate over another in a tendentious and often disingenuous manner. Inherent to this phenomenon is the nature of the human brain that impels us not so much to uncover the truth but to prove to others that we are right.  Being burdened with a legal education, the author of this article is drawn towards wondering whether this is the reason there are two types of administering justice – the inquisitorial system where the primary objective is to determine the truth; or the adversarial system of justice where the key driver is to have two parties arguing with each other as to who is right.
The recently highlighted phenomenon of Fake News comes into focus here.  Politicians say what comes to their mouths and people believe them without question.  When they are found out to have uttered falsehoods, the believers stick to their belief because they do not want to change their minds.  It would be too inconvenient and cumbersome. Charles J. Sykes in his book How the Right Lost its Mind says: “This raises the question, why are so many people willing to believe fake news? The answer is deceptively simple – they believed fake news because they wanted to and because it was easy”.  Sykes goes on to say: “many voters use information not to discover what is true, but rather to reinforce their relationship to their group or their tribe. They use reason to confirm or justify the outcome they want”.
Even way before the social media or tech marvels that encroached into our collective thinking, and even in the earlier generations, our brains were wired to think in terms of the confirmation bias and the compelling urge to influence others with our thinking.  The human brain has been wired to think on a model that has been evolved over centuries.  This is not merely a spontaneous reaction and awakening to innovative technology or social networking.  Our political thinking and social mores has been evolving agelessly.  Our brains have been gaining gradual manipulative power over millions of years.  What we want to believe is what we will strive to prove no matter what.  One wonders how this progression pairs off with what the great Einstein said: “There is nothing called right or wrong: only what works and what doesn’t work”.  But one qualification – Einstein did not add the words after his statement: “for us”.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate, talks of a phenomenon called “cognitive ease” – which is a process where humans instinctively avoid and resist facts that are calculated to make them think harder.  This makes them accept information that may support their thinking and confirms their argument.  In other words, the “confirmation bias” in practice.
We practice several intellectually devious approaches to justify our views and prove ourselves right in our pursuit of truth. Perhaps the answer lies with Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, who calls this mental process Intuitive Heuristics, where most people, who are naturally rational thinkers, depart from their reality when influenced by fear, bias or their upbringing and beliefs. Kahneman says that the essence of intuitive heuristics can be clearly seen in instances when a person, faced with a difficult question, often answers an easier one, usually without noticing the substitution. In other words, intense concentration on a subjective position makes one socially and rationally blind.
As Einstein said: “Whoever is careless in the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters|”.