All you know is wrong | Art & Appetite

By James Spangler | May 17, 2017

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler is a keen observer of the human condition. I've always felt that her strongest trait as an author was her ability to bring her characters to life.

By the time you turn the last page of one of her novels, you feel as though you know the people who populate them – they're like members of the family.

I remember an incident chronicled in her 1988 novel, “Breathing Lessons.” Traveling along a two-lane country road, annoyed at a slowpoke, our heroine makes a show of pointing frantically at one of the slow driver’s wheels as her husband passes.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with the wheel, but the slowpoke pulls over. Feeling terrible,  the woman orders her husband to turn around. Returning to where the car has pulled over, she's unable to convince the elderly man the wheel has no damage. All her explanations and apologies fall upon deaf ears – he’s convinced there must be an issue with his car, and will drive it no further.

I'm not sure why this vignette stuck with me. It sounds like an improbable event, but in fact, it may be illustrative of one of our greatest failings as a species.

It may even be that should we fail to correct this flaw, our collective fate is sealed.

Just hypothetically, if you were confronted with an irrefutable truth that ran contrary to your current beliefs, you’d change your thinking, right? Maybe not.

A study conducted at Stanford University indicated that once we get an idea in our heads, almost no amount of evidence to the contrary will alter our thinking.

In a nutshell, they studied two populations using phony and actual suicide letters; researchers commended the individuals in one group for guessing correctly which letters were authentic and which were fake.

They berated individuals in the second group for failing to identify the real letters. In fact, both groups had been about equal in their discernment.

Once the cat was out of the bag and the test subjects were told of the deception, an interesting thing happened. Contrary to all evidence, the test subjects continued to believe that they were exceedingly good or bad at differentiating between real and fake suicide letters, as they originally had been told.

Take a moment to consider the implications of this.

It’s bad enough that we have such a shallow and insignificant grasp of the universe. Now it turns out that much of what we think we know is also probably wrong.

What’s more, we are likely to ignore the truth as it stares back at us if it happens to be contrary to our current belief system.

As if that wasn't enough, there are those who will spend vast sums and expend great energy in an attempt to intentionally deceive us.

So what’s the solution? Beats me. I think we’re doomed. This is what happens when a restaurant I want to review is closed just before my deadline. Look for my review of Cafe Oaxaca at Five Corners soon.

They’re closed Mondays. Really. I'm not making that up.



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