Knowledge alone does not bring us to a common understanding

We all like to believe we are independent thinkers, but the beliefs of most people often align with one team or another. Tamar Haspel does not have a team. She is a columnist for the Washington Post and, along with her husband, has an oyster farm on Cape Cod. If you follow her on Twitter you will notice that she is not shy about her opinions but really does try to get to the bottom of things, and is willing to change her mind.

Haspel was recently in Saskatoon where she gave a presentation at Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan’s Farms at the Table conference. Her first challenge to the audience, made up of food producers and communicators, was: you want other people to change their minds but when was the last time you changed your mind on something significant? Only two hands went up in a crowd of over 150 people. It would appear we all have some work to do.

I interviewed Haspel by phone after the conference. We talked about the importance of having an open mind and what factors play into being able to truly influence people. (Story continues after audio.)

Haspel says we often believe that scientific knowledge will lead to agreement. This may not be as common as we would hope. Once people have invested in an idea, knowledge can become a tool harnessed to defend a position rather than find a path to truth.

“Not only do science and education not protect you from confirmation bias – which is the mechanism by which we find evidence that supports our position and dismiss evidence that doesn’t– it turns out that people who are more scientifically literate and better educated, at least on some issues, are more likely to be polarized, not less likely to be polarized. And part of that is because if you are better educated you may have more confidence in your opinion, and not just in your opinion but in your ability to parse evidence,” says Haspel.

Haspel encourages discourse based on a firm scientific foundation, but just spouting facts does not change many minds. The human side of the equation is much more persuasive than we like to admit. We have to be willing to change our minds if we want others to change theirs. We have to be willing to listen if we want others to listen to us and we have to connect on a human level if we want others to see us that way.

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