The Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective, Part 2: We No Longer Believe Evidence and Facts

Intro

I think almost all of us can agree that America is extremely polarized right now. The middle, the bipartisan, the moderate, whatever you choose to call it, is either gone or silenced. In the Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective parts 1 and 2, I’d like to add two of my thoughts on why we, in America, are experiencing an extreme polarization.

A couple of disclaimers:

  • My expertise is communications and marketing only. I also recognize that my expertise is limited and that there are people with much greater expertise than I in these fields.
  • If you read into any of this as leaning politically in one way or the other, you are reading something into it that I didn’t put there.
  • I believe, like most large-scale societal issues, that there isn’t one answer or two answers. There are a lot of contributing factors. Again, this is limited to my thoughts based on communications and marketing only. Other subject matter experts will have differing theories and views. I encourage them to share them as well.
  • I do not claim to have the right answers to the concerns I bring up. I offer my best at a solution and hope, by publishing this, that together we can come up with the right solution.

Part 2: We no longer believe evidence and facts

We are in a digital age where anyone with basic Photoshop skills can edit photographs and information in a very short amount of time (Don’t believe me? See the How to Cheat on a Test video above), our figureheads decry everything as a conspiracy, students attempt to use Wikipedia as a source in their research papers, and someone is constantly challenging the credibility historical accounts and documents. And, in some cases, all of the above are true and happen. People doctor photos and documents, some things are a conspiracy, sometimes Wikipedia is right, and we are learning new things about our history every day.

The problem is, with so much uncertainty about the validity of evidence and facts, everyone is free to make up their own version of truth rather than accept a universal version of truth. The lack of agreement based on evidence, then, leads to our polarizing thoughts. If not everyone is playing with the same version of the rules, the game quickly becomes chaotic. Can you imagine if we all decided to come up with our own definition of how long an inch is? Don’t get me wrong, questioning and testing is how we progress and ensure that our information is true and accurate, but some conclusions must be drawn at some point and universally accepted or the polarity will continue.

So whose role in our society is it to be the fact and evidence police? Typically, it’s been those in journalism and higher education (disclosure: I work at a community college as an administrator). I covered pretty well how the Internet’s hive mind has, unfortunately damaged journalism’s reputation in Part 1: We Stopped Listening to the Other Side, so, for this post, I will focus on higher education.

It’s been the researchers at the top research institutions in our country and internationally that constantly challenge facts and validate evidence for us. The problem is, we don’t believe them and/or value them anymore. My thoughts on why that is are as follows:

  • People don’t fully understand the scientific process. One study published says that chocolate is good for you. Six months, later, a study published says it isn’t. This leads people to believe that they can’t trust either study. In reality, the conflicting evidence is part of the process. Now, the researchers have to try to isolate why chocolate is good in some cases and bad in others. Perhaps it’s that one study used milk chocolate and the other used dark chocolate. So, through a new round of research, the studies narrow it down further show that DARK chocolate is good for you, while MILK chocolate isn’t.
  • Cognitive Dissonance leads us to disbelieve evidence. Here we visit our friend again, Cognitive Dissonance Theory. When people are faced with information that doesn’t agree with their current beliefs. they will attempt to reconcile this difference. There are a lot of ways they can do this: form new beliefs, modify their beliefs, avoid anything contrary to their beliefs, or reject anything that does not align with our beliefs. In this case, I’m talking about the latter. However, there are times when, in fact, there is a conspiracy and the actions of a few make us question the actions of many.
  • Some researchers actually do manipulate evidence. There are legitimate cases where researchers, for a variety of reasons, have manipulated their research and evidence. Unfortunately, that reflects on all researchers and makes people question the validity of any research.
  • Research and higher education are losing their credibility and value. Mostly due to a combination of all of the factors above and the mixing of credible and non-credible information in our media, higher education and research are struggling to maintain their credibility and value. If you need evidence of this, go no further than this article, Is Reddit going to replace college for people who can’t afford higher education?. How anyone could think that popularity voting is accurate and proper vetting at a similar level to the research vetting done in higher education  is shocking to me, but there are many that are arguing just that.

The solution here is not one thing, but a combination of many. We must choose experts to believe, whether it be higher education or otherwise; we must hold those experts in high regard, we must hold those experts to the highest ethical standards, we must take the time to understand and explain the research process and where we are in it, we must be open to evidence that challenges our beliefs, and we must value those who have the expertise. How we do that, however, is the question we must now choose to answer.

The Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective, Part 1: We Stopped Listening to the Other Side

Intro

I think almost all of us can agree that America is extremely polarized right now. The middle, the bipartisan, the moderate, whatever you choose to call it, is either gone or silenced. In the Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective parts 1 and 2, I’d like to add two of my thoughts on why we, in America, are experiencing an extreme polarization.

A couple of disclaimers:

  • My expertise is communications and marketing only. I also recognize that my expertise is limited and that there are people with much greater expertise than I in these fields.
  • If you read into any of this as leaning politically in one way or the other, you are reading something into it that I didn’t put there.
  • I believe, like most large-scale societal issues, that there isn’t one answer or two answers. There are a lot of contributing factors. Again, this is limited to my thoughts based on communications and marketing only. Other subject matter experts will have differing theories and views. I encourage them to share them as well.
  • I do not claim to have the right answers to the concerns I bring up. I offer my best at a solution and hope, by publishing this, that together we can come up with the right solution.

Part 1: We Stopped Listening to the Other Side

A couple of years ago for one of my masters courses, we listened to an audio interview of Jaron Lanier where he shares his views on how the Digital Age is changing our world. Part of that interview focused on his essay on Digital Maoism. And, part of this essay focuses on the hive mind, which is “a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force.”

The hive mind has many facets, but the part that I think is shaping the polarity of America is how the Internet became an easy way to not have to listen to any viewpoints that didn’t agree with our own. Basically, we can now go to our “hives” without ever seeing or hearing something that is counter to the thinking of our hive.

True, in America, we had this ability prior to the Internet. You could choose to walk past the book in the library that didn’t agree with your way of thinking or refill your snacks while the TV reporter gave the opposing political expert his or her air time. With the Internet, however, you don’t have to “walk past” the other side(s) or try to tune them out. Instead, you can go directly to your side. The Internet made it much easier to only hear the viewpoints that you agree with and, more importantly, not listen to any opposing viewpoints.

One man speaking, another rolling his eyes.
This photo is intentionally not from the U.S., but is a great illustration of my point. The man does not look like he agrees with the other man at all, but at least he’s there, listening, instead of choosing to avoid information. Or maybe there’s just something REALLY interesting on the ceiling. Photo from Flickr: Direitos Urbanos

Our tendency to avoid information that is counter to what we believe to be true is well-documented in Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Whenever we face information that does not agree with information we have in some way, we must resolve the dispute in our head. Although there are a variety of ways to do this, a popular way is to avoid information that challenges our currently held beliefs and that is what we can do by never going to an opposing viewpoint’s website and, instead, go directly to only those that agree with us.

But what about the biased media? Fox News and MSNBC to name two? True, they don’t have opposing viewpoints on there, but my thought here is that they adapted based on the Internet hive mindset. Many news organizations did and still do invite a variety of viewpoints to chime-in on issues. But, since the Internet became popular and people got used to not having to listen to the other side, many of the news organizations adapted to meet their viewers’ new preferences of not listening to point-counterpoint.

So what’s the solution? Personally, I try to avoid biased sources of information and/or balance them by openly listening to the opposing side(s). I’ll admit though, it’s very difficult to do and I’m sure I still approach the opposing side’s arguments with my own biases as a defense. However, from an overall societal standpoint, I’m unsure. Perhaps someone with a historical background has some thoughts on how societies have overcome similar polarization in the past.The best I can come up with is that it would have to be a conscious, cultural change; we would need to become a society that values open, respectful debate again.