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When you study Eastern philosophies, you learn that there really is no objective reality. We see things through our own experience and filter accordingly. We tend to look for what reinforces what we already believe and miss or discount that which negates our beliefs – exactly the opposite of the scientific method.  To really find out how valid something is, you see if you can falsify it.  No matter how many times you prove something, that is not the final say. You may have just missed the one thing that proves it wrong.

But what happens when one is proved wrong?  Do we modify our beliefs accordingly? Sometimes, but often we modify our reality and our experiences to once again “prove” what we already believe.

Remember this conversation from the movie, “The Big Chill”?
Michael: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.
Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

Rationalizations, or trying to make something unreasonable seem reasonable to ourselves, is one way to justify our beliefs, despite the evidence.

Festinger, Reicken, and Schachter studied a group in Chicago in 1954 and published their work in a 1956 book called “When Prophecy Fails.”  The group’s leader had been given a specific date for the end of the world.  The group of believers would be spared, rescued by a flying saucer. Members sold and gave up their possessions and on the prophesied date of destruction, waited all night for the saucer to arrive.  The world didn’t end, the saucer never appeared.  But that didn’t end the members belief. A new prophecy arrived and said that through their diligence and belief, they had shown a light on the world which led the deity to spare the earth.  Instead of ending the group’s belief, it actually strengthened their beliefs and led to proselytizing.  From this study came Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.  We have an innate need to have inner harmony in our beliefs and actions and use whatever psychological defenses we need to maintain that harmony despite reality.  “Smoking doesn’t cause any harm. I don’t believe all that talk. I know people who lived to be 95 and smoked every day,” words wheezed between puffs and hacks.

The University of Buffalo has done a lot of work during the past ten years on resiliency of individuals after disaster.  One of the factors in positive coping skills is to not watch much television news.  The problem with news these days is that most of it is not news.  The advent of 24 hour news networks led to the advent of filler provided by pundents and self anointed experts who fill in what is not known with speculations. Most of it is just information resulting from motivated reasoning, directed perceptions, and sometimes outright misinformation designed to appeal to political/religious beliefs despite reality and to boost the network’s revenue by playing to the demographic.  William Randolph Hearst (whose journalism helped spark the Spanish American War based on the misinformation that the Maine was blown up in Havana harbor when in fact, the ship’s boiler blew up in an accident) and P. T. Barnum would be proud. Or maybe disillusioned at just how gullible our discomfort with cognitive dissonance makes us.

Once again, critical thinking and questioning and mindfulness are keys to finding harmony between beliefs and the evidence of our world. Attachment to that which is clearly proved false has the potential to do great damage.

“The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new horizons, but in seeing with new eyes.” Marcel Proust

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