When was the last time you changed an opinion? Did facts and figures help you change a strongly-held belief?
Recent events have compelled me to dig deeper. For instance, the Home Minister of India Amit Shah claimed that Article 370 stalled the development of the Jammu and Kashmir region. Based on evidence, this claim is false. In the US, Donald Trump makes, on an average, 13 false claims a day. As I write this, the precious Amazon rainforest is horrifically burning at the rate of one football pitch a minute. The Brazilian President has accused NGOs for this destruction, without offering any evidence.
Powerful people have clear reasons to disregard facts and figures. But what sources we follow and how we process information as citizens has implications on the nature and quality of our discourse. How do we relate to evidence that supports or challenges our views?
Throughout evolutionary history, human beings have collaborated and relied on each other’s expertise within the group. We don’t need to be experts in everything, because that would be superfluous. It is this kind of distributed expertise-building that helped humans create successful cooperative groups and societies.
But our social functioning also gave rise to something called the ‘illusion of explanatory depth’ — we think we know more about something than we actually do; we often realize we don’t know as much when we are asked for a more detailed explanation. We inadvertently think we know something well because of our association with people who might be knowledgeable about that particular thing.
This illusion becomes problematic in politics. Across the political spectrum, people are more likely to believe political news that adheres to their ideology and are suspicious of news inconsistent with their ideology. We support political stances without comprehending the consequences of those stances.
When faced with evidence, our cognitive dissonance is a political liability. Despite evidence, people tend to stick to their beliefs and to the people who share those beliefs. This has implications on how we engage, especially with fellow citizens, leaders and decision-makers in post-truth politics, development and sustainability issues.
Ben Phillips, Co-Founder of Fight Inequality Alliance, neatly lays out in 3 simple points what he calls the evidence-base paradox.
Sharing evidence is not enough, especially when evidence demands changes that run against the interest of decision-makers and their supporters.
“The quality of justice depends on the equality of power to compel.”- Thucydides
Disregarding evidence plays an important role in maintaining certain narratives. Most of the mainstream narratives today are maintained by story mills in media that serve the powerful. The economics has politically shackled media, the political has economically shackled the media, and the lines between the two have blurred — the economic and the political have become indistinguishable. Ultimately, it is the citizenry that is unable to share the truth of their stories and empathize with each other’s realities.
Does the major imbalance in the power on narratives render an evidence-based approach irrelevant today?Absolutely not.
Changing a belief needs both a provocative and safe space, something that the media and public discourse fail to provide today. But evidence will continue to inform our hope and purpose in the present. It helps us bear witness to the truth, whether it is in the school, office or the parliament. In a safe space, evidence leaves the door open for dialogue, for engagement with fellow citizens. It will help us understand our own helplessness and to join hands for collective action.
Evidence extends beyond the statistical. Jean Dreze talks about the importance of experience as evidence. Experience helps us clarify our values.
“Lived experience, can help us put statistical data in perspective and form a more enlightened view on the priorities of social policy.”– Jean Dreze, Sense and Solidarity
The experience of oppression and pain holds tremendous value as evidence. Even silence and darkness shed light on the unjust systems that govern us or our fellow citizens. The smoke of the burning Amazonian trees cloud the ethical premise of our economy and politics — such destruction can be disregarded as evidence of a deep crisis at our own peril.
Evidence alone is far from enough to share a common ethical ground. But with a little compassion and courage, I hope it helps us recognize our dissonance, reflect over our ethics and take the right action, together.
We cannot afford not to.
Note: The article was first featured on Medium