If a space invader believed what Americans say about education, he/she/it would conclude that we value it highly. If this same creature were to sit in on any of a zillion business meetings, he/she/it would also determine that Americans base their strategies, beliefs, and actions on facts (or in the face of uncertainty, at least the most reasonable assumptions), plus a logical thinking modality that connects facts with inevitable conclusions. If the alien were to overhear the thousands of conversations in businesses and non-profits alike about "continuous improvement," he/she/it might conclude that we are all intimately involved in feedback loops where consequences of current actions modify future actions.
If our hypothetical space invader then extrapolated to assume that Americans, in general, modify their belief systems and actions to conform to reality, he/she/it would be making a huge mistake.
I am not the only person to notice this phenomenon. Writing in the December 14th edition of the New York Times, Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman commented: "When I first began writing for The Times, I was naive about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs."
In a similar vein, columnist Tim Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times (12/12/09) that "our national conversation is dominated by a culture of assertion rather than a respect for evidence reasonably assessed."
One has only to witness the current "debates" about practically every important political issue of the day to verify these ugly truths.
I have been privileged as CEO of a mid-sized non-profit organization to learn about and actually utilize a complex and multi-step decision-making strategy (thanks in part to a skilled consultant) -- and it works! Unfortunately, the model is too complex to describe here in its entirety. Suffice it to say that it incorporates ten steps, including agreeing on the characteristics of a desirable outcome, ascertaining facts, and projecting the likely outcomes of alternatives suggested by a diverse group of people.
I don't see much evidence that decisions made in our public arenas conform to any cohesive decision-making process. We rarely define our goals carefully. We ignore or dispute facts based on pre-existing belief systems rather than modifying our beliefs to conform to generally recognized facts. We don't listen well; "debate" doesn't have the same meaning it used to.
In today's political world, evidence carries little or no weight; life-long learning (ideally part of the "education" we claim to value) is a joke. There is only one step in the political decision-making process: what do I already believe, or need to believe in order to get re-elected? Facts be damned.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but without giving weight to evidence, would we not still believe that the earth is flat and occupies its rightful place in the center of the universe?
Correct me if I'm wrong, but without giving weight to evidence, would we not still be bloodletting to cure people of diseases rather than giving them antibiotics?
(OK, admittedly, this means some people do pay attention to some facts some of the time, since we do have antibiotics and don't believe the earth is flat. But we still can't agree on health care policy, climate change, tax policy, the value of foreign interventions, etc.)
I'd love to see an intelligent creature from outer space slap a few people in the face and say "Wake up! You are destroying each other and the planet! Use your mental capacities for something more meaningful than voting for the next American Idol!"
Ronald Wolff publishes the blog Musings from Claremont, where this article first appeared. Republished with permission.