Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An Age of Certainty

Lately, I have been constantly surprised by how sure everyone is about…well, everything.  Personally, I blame the internet.  Information, not to be confused with wisdom or understanding, is never more than a smartphone away.  Thanks to Wikipedia, Google, and a million data centers and opinion sites, the ability to “prove” any point we want to make is easy. 

I don’t get how people can be so confident.  For me, the more that I read, the more that I study, the less sure I am about anything.  I have my beliefs constantly trampled on by the exposure to new ideas and new experts and new studies.  Everything we can think of is more complicated than we originally take it for.  There are entire industries dedicated to the development, design and testing of plastic ziplock bags.  If such a thing is possible, then surely large subjects like the economy cannot be explained away by the easy billboard slogans that are so common today.

I am no expert, and I recognize the situation as such.  I will debate politics, the economy, and just about anything else that I have passing knowledge in, but I am willing to be proven wrong.  I am willing to learn something.  That doesn’t mean that I am willing to give up my opinions easily.  If I encounter opposition, then I will question it, debate, and see how it fits with other things that I believe to be true.  I may not change my opinion often, because I do take some pride in researching subjects that interest me, but if I encounter a solid argument that is well-reasoned and is not too idealistic, by which I mean that it could apply in real-life situations, I am very willing to accept the idea that my knowledge is incomplete. 

Using the internet for news, information and research seems to decrease a person’s exposure to conflicting viewpoints.  This is truly a waste of an incredible resource.  The ubiquity of political blogs, the fairly-recent addition of allowing comments on a news article and the surge of think-tanks all make it possible for us to go through life considering ourselves informed citizens while rarely being exposed to the other side of the argument.  Because so much of our “news” is actually opinion and editorial commentary, we get interpretations of interpretations as our information.  The other side is almost always demonized in these writings, which only solidifies our beliefs further into “us” and “them.”  We then come to reject on sight the opinions and beliefs that we have learned to identify as coming from the opposition. 

If you read about a subject that has a clear bias for one side, why isn't the natural reaction to read a perspective from the other side?  Why are we so tied to our opinions and beliefs?  To some degree, I believe that it is because questioning our beliefs about politics, economics and foreign affairs forces us to recognize that these issues are not as simple as we would like to believe.  It takes away from the idealistic view that there are easy choices, or that everyone can be happy and successful, or that we are on the side of "good."  Some level of uncertainty is the only sane response to a world as big and complicated as ours.  We can't all be experts in everything, so why do we pretend to be?

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