One hundred years ago this month, two intrepid explorers returned from the Arctic reaches and declared that they had reached the North Pole. Not together, but on competing expeditions to become the first person and team to the Pole. Robert E. Peary led one expedition, and Frederick A. Cook led the other. And each declared the other's claim to the Pole untrue.
Today, of course, that kind of controversy could be settled far more easily. At the very least, we would expect a GPS track record showing that the Pole had been reached, and airborne photographs or other corroborating evidence might be required, as well. Without that technology, however, the claims were a little harder to confirm. It's not like there was an exact marker at the spot, because nobody had been there before. And unlike the peak of Mt. Everest, the landscape at the precise location of the North Pole doesn't look distinctly different from the rest of the terrain--for hundreds of miles in any given direction.
So the controversy has raged for a full century. But here's the interesting part. As more data about the expeditions, and about the North Pole, have emerged, it seems more and more likely that neither man actually reached the Pole. As John Tierney wrote recently in the Science Times, Peary supposedly took no celestial navigation readings on his final push to the Pole, until one day he took a single reading, looked very disappointed, and then declared that the observation--which he showed to no one--confirmed that he'd arrived at the North Pole, exactly. Cook had neither a trained celestial navigator nor the skill to make the observations himself. Without that skill, how on earth (so to speak) could he have reached the Pole, or known precisely when he was there? The modern-day consensus, according to Tierney, is that Peary got closer than Cook, but that neither man got closer than perhaps 100 miles away.
Yet a full century and much more advanced data analysis and evidence later, Peary and Cook still have ardent supporters who adamantly believe that their hero told the truth. They suggest that it might have been possible for either explorer to have found the Pole without clear celestial sightings, by studying wind patterns in the snow, or observing shadows, or even by compass, even though a compass needle gets extremely erratic near the Earth's poles. Apparently, some of the Peary/Cook advocates are more comfortable with contorted logic than simply acknowledging that, given more data, it appears their initial impression of things was ... ummm ... wrong.
Peary and Cook are not the only explorers to have die-hard believers who have clung to a set vision of their heroes' lives despite the emergence of countering evidence. David Roberts, an editor at National Geographic Adventure, encountered a startling backlash of anger and even threats after writing a feature article last spring (which he's expanded into a soon-to-be-released book) that solved the mystery of a young adventurer's disappearance--but not the way some of the adventurer's admirers wanted it solved.
In 1934, at the age of 20, Everett Reuss left civilization to go live in the wilderness ... and was never heard from again. A whole folk myth movement sprang up around this young man who seemed to have slipped so completely into the wild that he eluded discovery for the rest of his life. An annual art festival in Escalante, Utah, is even named in his honor. But Roberts, who researched the case for 10 years, finally discovered evidence that Ruess had been murdered by two members of the Ute tribe almost as soon as he'd begun his journey. There was a witness to the murder, an unearthed skeleton, and DNA tests that were compatible with other family members.
The mystery, it seemed, had been solved. But the hue and cry surrounding Roberts' piece was both angry and loud, catching both Roberts and the Reuss family by surprise. "We all want our heroes to succeed," Reuss' nephew Brian surmised, in an attempt to explain the uproar. (A couple months ago, I wrote a longer essay about the Reuss controversy.)
Perhaps. But I now think there's more to the equation; tendencies that affect how we view information about not just heroes and adventurers, but also issues and events that affect local and national policy and action.
How is it that people can cling to an opinion or view of a person, event, issue of the world, despite being presented with clear or mounting data that contradicts that position? The easy answer, of course, is simply that people are irrational. But a closer look at some of the particular ways and reasons we're irrational offers some interesting food for thought.
In a recently published study, a group of researchers from Northwestern University, UNC Chapel HIll, SUNY Buffalo and Millsaps College found that people often employ an approach the researchers called "motivated reasoning" when sorting through new information or arguments, especially on controversial issues. Motivated reasoning is, as UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman put it, the equivalent of policy-driven data, instead of data-driven policy.
In other words, if people start with a particular opinion or view on a subject, any counter-evidence can create "cognitive dissonance"--discomfort caused by the presence of two irreconcilable ideas in the mind at once. One way of resolving the dissonance would be to change or alter the originally held opinion. But the researchers found that many people instead choose to change the conflicting evidence--selectively seeking out information or arguments that support their position while arguing around or ignoring any opposing evidence, even if that means using questionable or contorted logic.
That's not a news flash to anyone who's paid attention to any recent national debate--although the researchers pointed out that this finding, itself, runs counter to the idea that the reason people continue to hold positions counter to all evidence is because of misinformation or lack of access to the correct data. Even when presented with compelling, factual data from sources they trusted, many of the subjects still found ways to dismiss it. But the most interesting (or disturbing) aspect of the Northwestern study was the finding that providing additional counter-evidence, facts, or arguments actually intensified this reaction. Additional countering data, it seems, increases the cognitive dissonance, and therefore the need for subjects to alleviate that discomfort by retreating into more rigidly selective hearing and entrenched positions.
Needless to say, these findings do not bode well for anyone with hopes of changing anyone else's mind with facts or rational discussion, especially on "hot button" issues. But why do we cling so fiercely to positions when they don't even involve us directly? Why do we care who got to the North Pole first? Or whether a particular bill has provision X versus provision Y in it? Why don't we care more about simply finding out the truth--especially in cases where one "right" answer actually exists?
Part of the reason, according to Kleiman, is "the brute fact that people identify their opinions with themselves; to admit having been wrong is to have lost the argument, and (as Vince Lombardi said), every time you lose, you die a little." And, he adds, "there is no more destructive force in human affairs--not greed, not hatred--than the desire to have been right."
So, what do we do about that? If overcoming "the desire to have been right" is half as challenging as overcoming hate or greed, the outlook doesn't seem promising. But Kleiman, who specializes in crime control policy and alternative solutions to very sticky problems (his latest book is "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment"), thinks all is not lost. He points to the philosopher Karl Popper, who, he says, believed fiercely in the discipline and teaching of critical thinking, because "it allows us to offer up our opinions as a sacrifice, so that they die in our stead."
A liberal education, Kleiman says, "ought, above all, to be an education in non-attachment to one's current opinions. I would define a true intellectual as one who cares terribly about being right, and not at all about having been right." Easy to say, very hard to achieve. For all sorts of reasons. But it's worth thinking about. Even if it came at the cost of sacrificing or altering our most dearly-held opinions ... the truth might set us free.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Lanz, photolib.noaa.gov, Wikimedia Commons
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
Four hours after learning about Saturday's devastating earthquake in Nepal, I received a Facebook notification I had never seen before: Sonia, a journalist friend based in northern India, was "marked safe." An hour later, the same notification about a different friend popped up. Then another. Soon, several of my friends wrote that they, too, had learned via this strange new notification that their friends in Nepal were okay.
A few hours later, the mystery was solved. On Saturday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on his timeline that the notifications came from Safety Check, a service the company launched last fall. "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe," he wrote, "It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters."
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Lots of conservatives talk a good game about how citizens should resist federal control and devolve power to local governments. Few of them are willing to put their convictions into action in quite the same way that Sheriff Joe Arpaio is.
The man who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff" was already in trouble with Uncle Sam, on trial for contempt of court in a U.S. district court. It was only once that was under way that Arpaio and his lawyer apparently had the idea to sic a private investigator on the wife of the federal judge hearing his case. That shows toughness. It shows a willingness to use unorthodox tactics to resist federal interference. It's also not especially bright.
Reporters in the courtroom describe a somewhat shocking scene. Lawyers had completed their questioning when Judge Murray Snow announced he had some questions for Arpaio. After a series of queries, Snow asked: "Are you aware that I've been investigated by anyone?"
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a prime-time interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how they shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his gender identity.
During the interview, Sawyer made a conspicuous point of discussing broadly unfamiliar ideas about gender and sexuality to its audience. It didn't always go smoothly; her questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf. But she showed no lack of empathy.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 1,100 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
Our patient—we’ll call him W.B.—is a 56-year-old father of three who, until last year, had always been healthy. He had worked his entire life, in jobs ranging from automotive repair to sales, taking great pride in providing for his family, even though doing so had recently meant combining three part-time positions. All of that ended in February 2014, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness, ALS leads to the loss of all voluntary movement, difficulty breathing, and, in the end, death.
W.B.’s life was turned upside down by the diagnosis. But once the initial shock passed, he began researching his condition intensively. He learned that he was unlikely to survive five years, and that in the meantime his quality of life would diminish dramatically. With limited options, many patients retreat. But, quite bravely, W.B. had other ideas. After much consideration, he decided that if he was going to die, he would like to try to save another person’s life in the process, even if that person was a stranger. And so last May he approached the University of Wisconsin’s transplant program, where we are surgeons, as a prospective organ donor.
Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.
There is a tendency, when examining police shootings, to focus on tactics at the expense of strategy. One interrogates the actions of the officer in the moment trying to discern their mind-state. We ask ourselves, "Were they justified in shooting?" But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, "Were we justified in sending them?" At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one's children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can't be every place.