What are the psychological principles contributing to today’s divisive political and social environments? In this episode, Dr. Gary Deel talks to Joe Reish, who has spent more than 40 years teaching psychology, about some of the cognitive processing systems that affect the way people form belief systems. Learn about confirmation bias, dichotomous thinking, and simplistic bias that can prevent people from understanding opposing viewpoints, being empathetic, and being critical thinkers.
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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast, Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about the psychology of politics. My guest today is Joe Reish. Joe has been a part-time psychology instructor at American Public University for about 10 years.
He retired from a community college in Virginia after 40 years of teaching psychology. First, face-to-face, and then, online teaching for the last half of his career. He was a pioneer of online instruction, and offered the first psychology course for college credit in Virginia, one of the first in the U.S.
Joe is also an avid fisherman, and is known locally in Hampton Roads as Captain Joe. He’s a snowbird, and spends the winters fishing at his place on Lake Istokpoga in south Central Florida. Joe, welcome in Intellectible, and thank you for being our guest today.
Joe Reish: Thank you, Gary. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Gary Deel: So, we’re recording this podcast just after the New Year. It is January 5th, 2021, and we are amidst some interesting times, unprecedented sort of election happenings. Today is actually the runoff for the two Senate races in Georgia that will determine party control of the Senate house in Congress. We also have the what is supposed to be the ratification of the federal election tomorrow to take place in both houses. But different camps have vowed Republicans by the hundreds at this point have vowed that they will contest, and object, and force a debate on the floors of the legislature.
It’s not expected to change the outcome of the election, which of course was declared as Joe Biden being the winner. But this is, as I understand it, it has only happened twice previously in U.S. history, so this is a relatively unusual time for American politics.
That being said, I wanted to bring you on the podcast because you have a unique perspective on this from the view of a professional, learned psychologist, and I wanted to get your take on what’s happening in the country in terms of the way that people are behaving, the way that we tend to be gravitating toward divisive rhetoric, and in group thinking, and splitting through our relative camps to fight one another. Does this seem all very predictable to you? Or is this really unusual in the world of professional psychology?
Start a Psychology degree at American Public University.
Joe Reish: I think at this point, it appears to be unusual. Certainly, as you said, unprecedented. Probably, the best we can do in explaining these opposite viewpoints that people are so adamant about is look at a couple of theories in psychology. The first one being social identity theory, which provides us with just that, social identity.
Whatever groups we are members of, for instance, I’m a teacher, I’m a father, I’m a man, I’m an older guy, we look at the world through that group membership, in terms of, in-groups being people just like us or similar to us, and out-groups being people that are very different.
Women, for instance, if we’re a man, we look at women as out-group, and there’s lots of jokes about that, but the interesting thing about group membership is that it, in addition to providing us with a social identity, it has built-in biases.
Once we form a “we” and a “they” the most pronounced bias—and these are subconscious processes—most people are unaware that they have slowly formed a negative bias against out-group membership. If you’re of one political party persuasion, then the other one always seems inferior, wrong about issues, even crazy, if you will.
In-group, on the other hand, provides a bias of superiority, “My ball team will always beat yours. It’s always going to be the best.” Whatever group I’m in is perceived as superior, whether it is or not. That ranges from people being adamant about their ball team being the best one, or their church’s belief system being the right one, the only one to a level of out-group bias that can lead to some of the rioting we’ve seen the shootings we’ve seen, and yes, even murder or war.
Dr. Gary Deel: It’s interesting you, you bring this up, I think one of the comments you made that resonated with me was the sense of madness that seems to be evident on both sides. And that to me feels new, and, you know, I should concede the point that I’m relatively young to be a follower of American politics. I’m 34 years old, so I don’t have too awful many elections from firsthand memory to recall, but I can distinctly recall in prior elections, you know, I think back to 2008, and 2012 with Senator McCain and Senator Romney competing against president Obama, and I admittedly lean left of center, and so, I supported the Democratic candidate in those elections, but I never looked at the views, or the support for the Republican candidate in those elections as madness in the way that I frankly do in the wake of the Trump presidency and his legacy.
I’m not sure if that’s a product simply of the divisive rhetoric that’s been spread over the last four years, that has led us to this point, or the distinct tangible objective differences between Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump. But I could look at those prior examples, McCain and Romney, and see that there were differences in policy perspectives and values, but I can look at them as relatively sane, moral, good natured human beings that I would not lose sleep about being in the White House, you know? I might prefer another candidate, but I wouldn’t really have deep concerns about the stability of our nation under their leadership. I would just go a different way if it were my decision.
But I feel like both sides are in camps right now amidst this last national election between Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, and obviously, presidential incumbent Donald Trump, where and Biden to the point made it his campaign slogan, that the very soul of this country is on the ballot in this election. That the future of our nation collapse or success, and future prosperity is at stake. And I know a lot of people, including myself felt that way, and so it seems like the distance between those relative camps or between the teams that you described, the in-group, out-group has grown exponentially. Do you feel that way or is that just an illusion that people are wrestling with?
Joe Reish: I certainly agree with you. I think that has to be couched in the perception of Trump’s performance, and whether, or not you buy into what he calls lame stream media. We all create our own delusional world to some extent, in regards to perception because there’s other kinds of biases that affect the way we eventually perceive reality.
A lot of us who believe some of the outrageous transgressions from the norm that Trump has reportedly done, look with curiosity at why he enjoys the support he enjoys. One read on that, is if you create a reality that is based on a certain set of beliefs about a person, their goodness, their political beliefs, or even their deistic connections, there’s a process where we start systematically ignoring information that contradicts our beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias.
And, it’s a cognitive processing bias that again is subconscious. It’s part of our nature, and it’s basically this: That what I believe is obviously true, because I believe it, and I’m going to systematically, whether I’m consciously aware of it, or not start looking for information that supports that belief, and systematically eliminating sources of information that don’t support that belief.
So what we end up with are two completely different Donald Trumps. One, in the minds of people who buy into the notion that he has done some really outrageously non-normative politicking during his tenure, and most people could whack off a list. Or a Trump who you believe when he says he didn’t do those things, and you create a Trump that has won the election, for example.
I saw an interview yesterday with a woman who had her red Trump hat on, and a reporter who was saying, you know, “Do you really think Trump won this election?” “Oh, absolutely. This election was stolen.”
Well, that to me indicates that she’s ignoring any information that contradicts her belief system. And that’s a common characteristic of what’s called confirmation bias, is once I believe something, in this case, about a candidate, I’m going to just systematically find information, and in conversations with friends, listen to ideas and notions that support what I already believe.
So I think one way of looking at this is, I think, a lot of the shouting and opposition to, between the two parties is because people have created two entirely different Donald Trumps in their minds.
Dr. Gary Deel: It’s interesting you mentioned and the way you describe it is to create a reality that leads people in one direction or another, and I think that’s at the heart of what appears in my mind to be the fundamental disconnect between the camps today is that, look, in fairness, it’s really hard to get objective truth today.
No matter which news source you rely upon, there will be some source of spin from some influence, whether it’s political, or corporate or special interest. There will be some slant. To really get to objective truth is hard work. But in my view, it seems the difficulty I have finding common ground with Trump supporting Republicans who view him as a Messiah, or even in the most generous terms, someone to just shake up the system, is that a reality has been created that is such a departure from an actual objective reality.
I mean, we’re at the point now, it’s almost a punchline where we’re arguing over whether it rained outside or how many people are standing in a crowd. They can easily be counted to dispute facts from fiction. But to your point, you have people who, again, pursuant to confirmation bias, just refuse to acknowledge any question to the truth that they’re being told by in this case, the candidate they’re supporting whatever comes out of his mouth as the gospel.
I mean, quite literally in some cases. And so I wonder how we overcome that? We like to think of ourselves as almost as very fine-tuned, truth detecting machinery that we all have this innate sense of being able to detect truth, and distinguish it from lies, and get to the source of what really is there.
And yet we find in examples like this, that there are dramatic, I mean, 180 degree, just complete opposite deviations where people are being led in masses to believe abject lies, and I think the election rhetoric is a perfect example of the idea that, again, this election has been stolen.
We’re recording this podcast just days after a bombshell phone call transcript was released between President Trump, and the Secretary of State from the state of Georgia, wherein Trump says, verbatim we need to find, or I want you to find like 11,000 votes to help him overturn the state’s Electoral College in his favor. And his evidence that he’s attempted to push off as evidence of fraud in the election is the thing that he consistently points to is the support among the Republican party’s registered voters of the belief that the election was stolen, but yet that seems to be stemming entirely from his rhetoric that it was stolen.
You know, so it’s this sort of circular door where Trump says it was stolen, his supporters believe it’s stolen, and then, he points to that belief or the support for that belief, which I think is something over 60% of Republicans today, believe that the election was stolen, and yet this has been disputed, and litigated in more than 60 court cases throughout the country as high as the Supreme Court level, and in various state courts.
Many of those cases were presided over by Republican judges. So you know, the argument to me that this is a big, bad Democratic conspiracy to steal an election, kind of, you know, falls on thin ice there and it’s failed. I mean invariably these attempts to dispute the election or contest that it was fraudulent have failed miserably.
So, it’s astonishing to me that this is where we are, that we’re arguing over, you know, the basis of facts and evidence when clearly one side has facts and evidence, and the other side is, is a matter of simple rhetoric that just doesn’t compare with reality.
Joe Reish: I agree with your opening statement. Today it’s extremely difficult to ascertain the court’s truth or the absolute truth. A lot of the mainstream news outlets are certainly guilty of manipulating viewers, what we call, already call confirmation bias. And it’s not only Fox News is an excellent example, but I’ve seen a continuum of broadcasts on a scale of, from liberal to conservative, and very few are in the middle.
So what a lot of us do, and I’m sure you do this as well, is my morning starts with a cup of coffee, and about six or seven different news sources. I even go to Fox, right after Huffington Post, so it gives you a fascinating example of in some cases, news bias, or bias by omission. The most astounding thing I see about some of them is they don’t even report what I consider a significant event if it doesn’t jive with what their viewers like to like to hear.
I wonder sometimes if other people make that effort? I think a good example of confirmation bias would be not necessarily to watch a certain news outlet because of its impartiality or journalistic integrity. They watch the same news channels because the programming appeals to their preconceived ideas and opinions.
I know people personally who watch one single news source, and it’s almost always a radical conservative or a liberal news source, both of which are going to give you a, at least a slanted, if not a completely non-objective view of reality, as you say. It’s very difficult then to tell the truth from fiction.
Also I think it’s been a lot of breaking of the traditional norms. Well, unlike you, I’ve been around for many, many, many presidential candidates, and different political parties running the show.
I think most people, at least, who don’t think he was deistic sent would agree that Trump has opened some interestingly and ugly doors. And I think empowered people to make terrible comments about other people, to say unflattering is the understatement of the day. To call enemies the bad names he, he’s used consistently, I think in one sense he’s empowered others. He’s been a role model, and some of the modeling is not acceptable behavior, frankly, and yet that’s empowered other people to say, “Hey, if he can cuss people, so can I.” And, belittle them, and attack his enemies the way he does.
There’s another question I have about all of that, and I wonder, as I mentioned, if a lot of people possess the cognitive capabilities that are necessary to be a critical thinker or let’s use your term, a truth seeker. Just what’s our best shot at finding out a view of the truth that we can accept?
Several theories have to do with the way we think, and the way we process information, and I’ll mention a couple of these real quick. Some people use what’s called dichotomous thinking. You might think of that as black and white thinking, and that’s the world that a dichotomous thinker creates. It’s black and white.
You’re good or bad, you’re either for us or against us. And for those people, there’s very little gray area, and I think that plays right into confirmation bias, and perhaps exaggerates it because I’ll not be motivated to look at any other source of information, for example, or another viewpoint, and certainly not an opposing viewpoint.
Dr. Gary Deel: The lack of awareness of confirmation bias is something that is stunning to me that and I think it happens, I think no one is immune to it, you know. We’re all prone to it, and depending on the level of training and awareness you have of it, you know, that’s ultimately determinative of your ability to combat it or resist it. But again, you know, we tend to have high opinions of ourselves in terms of our ability to distinguish truth from fiction or truth from lies, and yet, you know, no better example, you mentioned the news networks.
And I was reading several articles discussing how in the wake of the obvious results of the national election, which eventually came, you know, several days after mail-in ballots had finally been counted, and everything had been tabulated.
Fox News had the audacity to acknowledge reality, you know, along with the other major networks, and declared Joe Biden, the apparent winner of the election. And it appears from the ratings, and what I’ve read of sort of viewership that people in droves, I mean, by the millions of viewers flocked to other, even more extreme right-wing networks, One America News and Newsmax, which were sort of the last bastions of holding out the line of, you know, this is fraud, and it’s not over yet.
And so far as I’m aware, there’s still to a certain degree, championing these causes, but it’s interesting to see that people by the millions are quite literally feeding their own confirmation bias. A comedian that I enjoy Bill Burr has a bit on that, where he says we go to imright.com, you know, and they just tell us what we want to hear. It’s fascinating to see that at work in a really pivotal moment in our society.
Joe Reish: I agree with you. I think it’s also fascinating that so many people are not aware of any of the biases, any of the cognitive biases, but particularly, group membership bias, and cognitive bias, which can actually prevent a person from, as we’ve been talking, seeking the truth, or certainly seeking an alternative opinion.
I think black and white thinkers, again, play right into the worst parts of dichotomous thinking or prejudicial viewpoints. They won’t consider an alternative view. And the exodus from Fox News shows that, here’s something you don’t want to hear, and you leave. Your response to that is, I’m going go somewhere where I can hear what I want to hear, is just exactly what we’ve been talking about.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, the black and white thinking in as best I can tell, reduces your worldview to a reality that just doesn’t square with, you know, the world that we live in. And I’m reminded of some quotes by famous scientists, astronomers, and astrophysicists that I follow. And one of them, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, talks about how, just because you don’t understand something doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t true. And there’s truth to that in the universe at large, we’re talking about string theory, or black holes or the big bang and in politics as well. His opinion and what he’s been trying to convey throughout his life as an educator, is that the universe is under no obligation to conform to your preconceived notions of how it ought to be.
No matter how black and white or dichotomous you think that these issues should be they rarely are in the 21st century. Things are just far too complicated, whether we want to talk about immigration, or poverty, or climate science, and all of these things in the eyes of many are reducible to a simple yes or no, us or them mentality, but the reality is that they just, they’re not that simple.
Joe Reish: I couldn’t agree more, and you have just brought up another cognitive bias, and I think a very important one. There’s something called the simplistic bias, which it refers to how people perceive a concept to be simplistic just because their knowledge about it may be simple or lacking.
And that’s almost frightening. I know way too many people who don’t even know what quantum physics refers to, and you mention any complexity beyond molecular structure that they learned in high school. And they default to seeing that concept is extremely simple. I’m sure there’re people who still believe that there’s a separation between matter and energy, so you’re absolutely right. What we have uncovered is vast complexity in the universe, and in systems like politics and business, but vast complexity is difficult for a lot of people to understand, so they’ll get a simple concept, and say, “Okay, that’s it, that’s all there is to it.”
And, that’s happened, I think, with the coronavirus. I guess an example of simplicity would be Trump’s suggestion of drinking Clorox, or some of the most simplistic approaches to virology and epidemiology, way missed the complexity of this thing. And I think we’re now suffering for it.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think you’re right, and, and tell me if you agree with this, I think there’s also an element of, of personification of the threat that allows us to grasp it in a different light. I remember back to, I guess I was about 16 years old when 9/11 occurred, and I lost an uncle in the World Trade Center attacks. And I remember the sense of patriotism and unity among the American people, the putting down of the red and blue swords in an effort to fight a foreign enemy, which in this case, of course, was the Taliban, and Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden and we were united around this front.
We gave then-President Bush these enormous broad war powers that some in hindsight have argued is unconstitutional, and war crimes to go, and invade other countries in an effort to fight back against a threat that we perceive to be pretty simple: It was good versus evil.
And, I think you’re absolutely right. You read my mind on the subject of coronavirus. Because this has been interesting by comparison as a threat that does not have a face, you know? And Donald Trump tried to make this about China, and for the most part failed at convincing people that this was a Chinese bio weapon conspiracy. But it’s a virus that is quite complicated as you noted, and those without an epidemiology degree and sufficient medical training to understand it struggled to grasp why it’s affecting us the way that it is.
But I think the reason why we don’t see this level of patriotism and unity, and the fact that we’re arguing about things like social distancing, and closures of the economy, and wearing of masks is a product, at least in my view, of the fact that we don’t have a clear target.
It’s not as easy to assign a label like evil to a virus as it is to a person, that’s kind of, of been apparent to me throughout the last 10 months or so, that we’ve been weathering the storm in America.
Joe Reish: I agree, Gary. And to me it’s been a shame, and it that there have been efforts both to politicize the virus, which to me is terribly interesting and play it down. If the motive was to be more concerned about the economic ramifications than the public health ramifications, which has been, that’s been the accusation of the administration, then that’s been very tragic. Because again, it gets back to what’s the truth, and when I’m told by somebody that I believe, and hang on every word, that it’s no big deal, it’s going away in a few months, it will mysteriously disappear. And I’ve actually had people say that to my face, that I found laughable and very sad at the same time, because the bottom line is this has cost people’s lives, maybe unnecessarily.
I’ve been sad that even under dire circumstances some people have not sought out the truth. I had a young man here in the community joke on me one day when I was wearing a mask, and he actually uttered the word, I think it was a sound bite, “Two days after Trump’s reelected this thing’s going to go away.”
The implication was it’s all a hoax, it’s an effort on the part of liberals to make Trump look bad, and it’s all that fake news is going to suddenly go away. My response to him was, “You obviously get your information from other sources than where I get mine. I suggest that you go to the CDC, or World Health Organization websites, and read about the coronavirus without all the politics, and all of the additional information, or misinformation that’s flying around. Those people have no political motives, no alterior motives to exaggerate or play down this thing, and if you really want to know the truth, that might be a good place to look.”
But, I was actually somewhat horrified that even with a life-and-death issue, which could be their death, some people were not motivated to go beyond a sound bite or two that comforted them. So again, I think, I think the quest for truth is perhaps at the core of our conversation here, and what keeps people from even making that quest.
By the way, there is some hope for thinking. Ray Perry did research years ago, and found what we educators, hopefully, experienced and find in our careers, that there were qualitative changes between the freshman year and senior year of college students, not just quantitative. They end up thinking differently, and Perry came up with a schema of how that develops.
I look more at Piaget, who said a notch above dichotomous thinking is continuous thinking, where life is seen or issues are seen in terms of continuums, and there’s no black and white without a gray. There’s certainly ends of the continuum, but all in between is seen as well. I mentioned, or I thought I mentioned with dichotomous thinking a good example is an attitude toward homosexual versus heterosexual.
Dichotomous thinkers see that as two entirely different worlds, separate sets, if you will. You’re either gay or straight, is the comment they will make. Continuous thinkers on the other hand see homosexual and heterosexuality as degrees of gender preference, with bisexuality right in the middle, and also, some mobility. People move around on that continuum. We’re not stuck someplace, as we’re not in many, many continuums. One out of four lesbian couples have a child, for example, from a previous marriage to a man, so when you take a snapshot of somebody’s life as a continuous thinker, they may not stay there forever.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s interesting, and I want to ask you about the role of empathy as a moderator in this process when we return. So Joe, when we left off we were talking about the modern opinions and how people arrive at their thinking.
You had mentioned the difference between dichotomous and continuous thinking, and you brought up an interesting example that I think is indicative of some of the differences between political factions, or, or political thinkers today. And the example that you brought up was the debate about homosexual versus heterosexual tendencies, and how society should address these differences, which is obviously still the subject of some debate.
We’ve had modern court precedents that have changed paradigms around things like marriage and employment, but it’s still a hotly contested issue. And one of the things I wanted to ask you about beyond the scope of critical thinking, and the realm of dichotomous versus continuous thought processes is the role that empathy plays in the eyes of the thinker.
I think this is important in some regard, because although I happen to be a heterosexual male, I find that I have the capacity to empathize with someone who is not heterosexual in their own lives. It doesn’t require me to have the same sexual preferences to identify with them in such a way that I would want them to have the freedom to love who they want to love, and to be able to live their lives the way they please, so long as they’re not hurting me, or anybody else in the process.
It seems that with many people I talk to who are opposed to society acknowledging, or condoning things like gay marriage, or prohibiting employers from refusing to hire, or employ people who are a part of the LGBTQ paradigm, that there’s a lack of empathy, a lack of ability to put themselves mentally in the shoes of someone who shares that space, because it’s so foreign to them.
It’s almost as if it’s impossible for them to imagine what it would be like to live in that world, and to me, that’s difficult to not imagine it, or to not be able to do that. So, as in your view, as a professional, do you find that, that dynamic has an effect on the way people process information and arrive at opinions?
Joe Reish: Yes, I do, and it’s probably more pervasive than that. But certainly in that realm, I think empathy is related to the level of information processing that a people, a person achieves.
One of the problems with dichotomous thinking is, as you mentioned, lack of empathy. It’s potentially just not there. It’s much easier to empathize with another person if you perceive the differences as continuous, rather than absolute. That’s part of the problem.
Let me give you a compliment. What you just said indicates the highest level of cognitive attainment, which is multiplistic, or relativistic thinking. That type of information processing does just exactly what you gave with your example. That allows you to look at various perspectives intimately, while still holding on to your own beliefs, at least tentatively. You can fully appreciate, and maybe even experience for a little while, someone else’s viewpoint or another perspective of reality.
Dr. Gary Deel: I appreciate that, and I think it’s interesting, because it sounds like what you’re saying, if I’m taking the right meanings from it is that there’s a correlation between critical thinking and cognitive processing of information and empathy. Which, in some regards, is viewed as a moral quality to be able to relate to others in a way that is compassionate.
There’s a connection here to a lack of empathy, leading to things like sociopathy and psychopathy in certain regards. And obviously, we’ve talked about the context of the debate over homosexuality and how to properly integrate the LGBTQ community and ensure fairness, but this same concept could be related to the debate over immigration, or how to address foreign affairs in the world with nations where there are tense relations.
I think it’s interesting to find that there’s almost a moral hinge point to critical thinking and it’s one thing to be able to process information in an intelligent and efficient and effective way, but it’s another to make morally and ethically sound decisions. But it sounds like these two abilities in some regards go hand in hand?
Joe Reish: Absolutely there’s a correlation. And I think multiplistic thinking, higher order thinking, allows a person to step out of their own belief system momentarily, experience the worldview from someone else’s view.
You could say much the same about religion. I think black and white thinkers, and people who believe that the in-group is absolutely always right, and everybody else is wrong has an extremely difficult time empathizing with someone with a different religious belief. So this is probably much more pervasive than just regarding LGBT and any specific information that we happen to be processing about a group or in-group or out-group.
Also, I think in addition to empathy, and higher levels of moral development, they’re open-minded. My description of a multiplistic thinker would be open-mindedness. And that certainly sets the stage for empathy.
If you quote, “Hate somebody” because, of their position in life, or their sexual preferences, or their religious beliefs, or their political beliefs, that’s going to be a huge barrier to any empathy. In fact, one of the first steps of some of the de-empathizing processes that you just described are a gateway to hatred, a step toward no empathy, whatsoever.
I think we’re seeing some of that play out, particularly, with political ideologies, leading to people carrying guns to demonstrations. That’s moving, taking morality almost off the table. When I saw those people storm the Michigan courthouse, my thought was, “Who are you going to shoot? Why do you have those guns?”
Of course, I knew the symbolism, and the, the purpose for the symbolism. But if you get right down to the brass tacks, what are you guys planning to do with those weapons? Then we’ve lost all resemblance of empathy, and moral behavior, I think.
Dr. Gary Deel: It gives me a peculiar sense of comfort, because in the wake of what seems to be in my view the end of Donald Trump’s political legacy, I mean, who knows what the future will bring, it’s clear that he will continue to wield significant influence within the Republican party. But as for myself, I view it as a good thing that we are moving past this and I hope that it will bring some sense of dignity, and integrity, and mutual respect back to the country with the transition away from Donald Trump in 2021. But, it’s not lost on me that the thought has crossed my mind, if someone’s slightly more savvy, or clever, or intelligent, you know, or to attempt the same level of charlatanry, in my opinion, in terms of bamboozling millions into believing fictions in the interest of a cause, might this have been successful?
Might a coup against what we believe in, to ourselves to be a sophisticated democratic Republican the most modernized, powerful nation on Earth. Might it have worked if the person behind the wheel was just slightly more capable.
But before we conclude our time I wanted to ask you something that stems from a lecture that I actually attended in Washington, D.C. several years ago, between several thinkers. It was actually sort of a panel discussion. Sam Harris, who is a neuroscientist and an author and an intellectual by trade, and Eric Weinstein, who is also a brilliant mind and a philosopher of sorts. And I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Harris a question related to sort of the fallout of the 2016 election, and where we were at that time, I think, it was maybe 2018.
So, we were right in the midst of the Trump presidency, and it seemed like every week there was a new bombshell scandal of something. And Sam has long talked about the fact that the ascension of Trump to the presidency is largely attributable to the amount of airtime that was afforded to him during the 2016 campaign. And the fact that the, the major news networks both left and right would pretty much uninterruptedly air his entire campaign rallies from start to finish, because they were so sensational and generated such ratings. People just wanted to see what would happen next. What’s he going to say next? You know, who’s he going to accuse of being a rapist or a murderer? Who’s he going to insult or offend? Is somebody going to get shot, or hurt at one of these things, as he’s almost pretty much endorsed verbatim?
And so, this was a criticism of the media, but, yet, we live in a society where above all else, we pride ourselves on our freedoms, and at the top of that list is freedom of speech to say what we wish, and to be able to express our opinions.
But it’s not lost on me as has been sort of the overarching theme of our discussion this hour that many people are not equipped with the tools that are necessary to distinguish and identify when they are being conned, when they’re being lied to when they’re being defrauded. One of the questions I asked Sam was: Do we need to rethink our views on the way that the media gives platforms to people who spread misinformation?
And, it seems that we’re doing this now with social media, like Facebook and Twitter are starting to label even tweets and messages from the President that are factually false as such. But my question to you in, in sort of closing out our hour and to get your professional take is, I guess if you were in charge of leading this effort to suppress misinformation, and to guide people toward truth, whatever that leads them to, ultimately. What steps do we as a society need to take to further that effort? Is there something we need to do that we’re not currently doing? Do we need more censorship, or do we just need better training and education? What’s the best path forward?
Joe Reish: Well, I’m a bit hesitant because I’m about to step on some big toes here. When I had my exit interview from a 40-year teaching career, the dean of the college asked me to make a couple of suggestions to her for the future.
And I’m not claiming to be prophetic, because this was before all of this political uproar began, and I thought about it, and I have never seen such a shocked look on an administrator’s face, because I think we in education are primarily about content. I’m a history teacher, I teach historical content. I’m an English teacher, I teach grammar and literature content, and my first statement to her was, “I think we spend way too much time on content.” Well, she looked at me like I was from another planet and I think her thought was, “What else are we supposed to look at?”
And, there’s a body of work now on cognitive processing, and what people do with information. You don’t just ask, have you memorized that concept? Spit it back to me, but what does it mean to you? Give me some examples, apply it to something else. And then, I think education needs to go one step further. Can you critically analyze this? Can you look at alternative viewpoints?
So, I think we can actually teach ways of thinking, and we should be, perhaps. Now, I’ve been a content guy for 40 years (laughs), so I think that’s one step, a giant step that we could take in education, and we could begin it early on. And certainly, in higher education pay attention to just what are people doing with the information? And, can we teach things like inquisitiveness, curiosity, make education appealing, and not boring?
So, I think that would be the place I would begin if I was king of the world. At this point, but I have been, I guess, disappointed generally in people’s ability to think critically about many of these issues. And have had otherwise intelligent friends say some pretty daggone naive things based on their systematic rejection of viewpoints that didn’t match their own. We should be seeking those out.
I think a critical thinker actually looks for: What do people who are opposed to this viewpoint say? And, maybe I can learn something from what they’re saying.
Dr. Gary Deel: No, it absolutely does, and I think you’re 100% right. And in fairness to all listeners, I think neither one of us are suggesting that we’re perfect arbiters of truth or fiction in that regard, and everyone is susceptible to being mistaken or misled whether it’s intentional or not by another party.
But I think your advice there is perfect and it aligns with another sort of piece of wisdom from Dr. Tyson that I mentioned earlier, who has said that the role of an educator is not to teach their students what to think, but how to think. Because you should not be basing your views with respect to the world and how you believe it works on what somebody tells you is the truth. You should base it on your own independent investigation of the facts and circumstances that lead you to that conclusion.
Anything else, if you believe what we say as speakers on a podcast, or as educators in the classroom, or as politicians, or leaders, or athletes, or celebrities, then it’s essentially just an argument from authority.
It’s nothing more than I believe it because clearly they’re in this position of a platform, and that’s what gives rise to the question that I asked earlier about how much of a platform we give to people who intend to abuse it, or who might abuse it.
That’s been a subject of debate, both on the right and the left. In recent years there have been issues of censorship and the uninviting of controversial speakers at university campuses and those kinds of things.
So everyone is guilty to a certain extent of problems related to this phenomenon, but it seems you’re right, and I share your sentiment that it’s disappointing to see how fragile this system really is, and how susceptible we are to en masse to manipulation in that way, and I can only hope that in the future, we do a better job of distinguishing fact from fiction, and not allowing ourselves to be misled by anyone.
Well, perfect. We’re at the end of our time. Is there anything else that you wanted to share Joe or anything we didn’t get a chance to talk about before we wrap up?
Joe Reish: No, that was very well said, Gary. And I really appreciate you having me today.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics, and thanks for joining me today for this episode of Intellectible. And thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting the various APU sponsored blogs. Be well and stay safe, everyone.