Saturday, July 30, 2005


How Do You Know?

In Salon's discussion forum Table Talk, pmk did some thinking about how people think:

I have a theory that some people operate on belief, others operate on knowledge. Although I sometimes think of them as two distinct populations, people undoubtedly fall somewhere on a continuum. They may operate as belief people in some areas of their lives and knowledge people in others. For knowledge people, things need to add up, beliefs are theories that are constantly being tested. They figure out how things fit together and fill in gaps as they seek to understand their world. Belief people come to their beliefs by looking to others. They adopt conclusions and don’t need to know the basis. Beliefs are beliefs, not theories. Belief people adopt a belief because people they identify with believe it. They are influenced by the beliefs of people that "cut to the chase." They are more likely to be influenced by people who accept and respect them as they are than people who look down on them. "Knowledge people” are doomed to frustration when they try to influence "belief people" by giving them the information that would lead another knowledge person to reach some knowledge-based conclusion. A belief person doesn’t adopt their beliefs in that way. They know what they know and arguing details with them does little to change that. Certainly, some belief people may change their beliefs when enough information is thrown their way, but most don't budge until others around them do. When "everybody knows" something, they join right in. Doesn’t matter what they believed yesterday, they just adopt the new beliefs. When dealing with belief people, knowledge people need to learn to simply assert their conclusions with assurance. No need to muck up a general truth with qualifications. No need to provide the details that led them to their conclusion. Listen to Rush for a short time. You’ll notice that he just spouts a series of conclusions. Whys and wherefores are rare. Ever wondered by why polls sometimes turn on a dime? I think those giant swings are belief people flipping. Beliefs can turn on a dime. There is no need to spend time reconstructing the basis to reach a new conclusion. When some critical mass is reached and enough people have adopted a belief, that belief spreads like wildfire. There is enormous variation in how people process information and function in the world. Just like a person with a photographic memory has a hard time imagining how a person that forgets so much can function, a "knowledge person" has a hard time imagining what it is like to be a "belief person," and vice versa. Both belief people and knowledge people can be led in the wrong direction through the manipulation of information or the dissemination of "everybody knows" propaganda. There are times that faith/confidence/belief serves us much better than analysis. For example, many looked at the evidence and concluded "you’ll never get a Senator to object on January 6th". Others had confidence that it was possible, and so kept pushing. Although I might find it useful to have a photographic memory, I would hope that those with photographic memories don’t look down on those who do not. Unfortunately, knowledge people sometimes see belief people as obstinate or lazy knowledge people. As a consequence, they make unproductive negative judgments. Belief people are what they are and trying to change them into knowledge people, or trying to figure out why they are belief people, or berating them for being belief people, is not helpful. Whether or not this theory is true, it sure saves me a lot of frustration and grief. It also gives me hope. We don’t need inform or educate "everybody" – we shouldn’t even try. We can ignore misguided belief people. We just need to reach that critical mass and the misguided belief people will come around on their own.

As a member of both the knowledge and belief communities, neither can lay an exclusive claim to irrational stubbornness. Einstein famously scorned quantum mechanics by saying "God does not play dice with the universe."

Polywater was an irrational belief that chemists adopted, one that contradicts a basic teaching as old as Democritus. In medicine, for decades upon decades, human body temperature was believed to be 98.6. Now it is believed to be 98.2, and you would not believe how rare it was to see a temperature of 98.2 recorded in medical charts before the shaman... er, doctor... announced the new credo. Ulcers used to be caused by stress, now by H. pylori, and soon maybe by something else.

If human beings can be so stubbornly irrational about easily measured things and testable ideas, why would we expect them to be any better on complicated questions such as whether it is possible to establish a democracy by occupation?

So, I see knowledge/belief as an intellectual construct of doubtful value. What I suspect pmk is really talking about is fundamentalist Christianity vs. everyone else. My website,, is devoted to showing that a literal interpretation of the Bible does not permit the interpretations they apply to domination of women, abortion, homosexuality, theocracy, and so on. What would help is if "the knowledge community" would learn the language of the Bible so that they could talk to "the belief community."
You made a wrong assumption here.
PMK wasn't discussing "belief _communities_", but individuals; and the context was political, not religious. I've known people who will believe or disbelieve something based not on what facts are presented, but on who is presenting the facts. These people are not exclusively religious fundamentalists.
I was using the term "community" simply to mean individuals with shared values, and did not assume that pmk was (to reduce it to a simple metaphor) referring to scientists vs. theologians.

Reliance on authority vs. de novo reasoning is a shortcut adopted by the lazy, a community in which we all partake at one time or another (some more than others). When decisions are time limited, reliance on a authority becomes necessary. If I have 60 seconds to decide whether Bill O'Reilly or Jared Diamond is right about some issue I know nothing about, I'd go with Diamond-- even if I don't know the veracity of facts adduced by either side.

Furthermore, I think that the main problem with those who would go with Bill O'Reilly is that they are ignorant-- so ignorant that the only criterion they can use to make a snap judgment is political party, and *willfully* ignorant through fear of punishment or hope of reward. This is why I suspect that waiting for "believers" to flip is like waiting for Godot. Yes, some event will come along to force them to think. But that event will be a catastrophe on the order of the Great Depression. The reachout that is done before that happens will influence their response to the catastrophe.

Anyway, I think pmk has reached what's called a premature synthesis. He/she has noticed a genuine phenomenon, that sometimes people rely on authority without reflecting on the facts. What's much more interesting is understanding what causes people to listen to facts or to run to authority, accepting that at times, all of us do one or the other.

A wonderful story that I know is of a physics graduate whose ideas were so odd that he was unable to publish or even find a job in the field. He wandered from place to place for 12 years, continuing to write and continuing to have his papers rejected.

Finally, he showed up on the doorstep of an academic physicist who was not only bright, but also not lazy, and maybe he also something about the man's plight sparked a little extra compassion. Under the aegis of that mentorship, work that had been rejected not just by one individual or another, but by *everyone* suddenly became respectable, even to those who had rejected it. Authority is a factor in influencing what people accept as true, even among the most knowledge-based.

Believers (whether religious or not) can be engaged if one speaks their language. And, when we are able, we should.
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