Desire to Know vs. Desire to Understand
It is our basic nature to be satisfied with just knowing certain facts. More often than not, our belief that we “know” a fact supersedes the desire to understand the complex details of the fact. Life is too busy to take the time to understand and analyze the over 50 GB of data our brains process every day. Knowing the train schedule is enough. I don’t need to understand the logic behind how the schedule was made. Knowing it will rain is enough to convince me I need an umbrella. I don’t need to understand or analyze the movement of high and low pressure systems.
For most of the information our brains process, just knowing is enough. However, being satisfied with “just knowing” can lead to gullible assumptions, acceptance of inaccurate information and lazy logic. Abraham Maslow theorized that the desires to know, to understand and to analyze have a hierarchical order. The strength of these desires is dependent on our immediate motivational needs. For example, if I am hungry and I want to eat something that is reasonable healthy, I can choose something at a convenience store. Say I grab a microwaveable soy burger. I know this is food. I read the label and I don’t find anything particularly bad on the label. It says “healthy choice” and “no MSG” on the packaging. I am content that it is not harmful and will satisfy my hunger. I have no burning desire to understand exactly how it was made or how it will make my hunger vanish. Looks good, smells good, tastes good…hunger gone, I’m happy.
It is doubtful the microwaveable soy burger will have any long-term detrimental effects on my body, but I have gone out on a limb by trusting the words, “healthy choice”. My trust is based on a gullible assumption that I am not receiving inaccurate information. Marketing companies know this and use our satisfaction with “knowing” as a tactic to sell us all sorts of products. Politicians and their campaign managers use similar tactics in election campaigns.
What happens when what we think we “know” is actually wrong?
If what I think I know about the train schedule is wrong, I will probably miss the train. However, if what a person thinks they know about a political, environmental or social issue is wrong, it will probably lead to poor choices for mitigation of the negative consequences related to the issue. Fake news (a.k.a. “propaganda”), advertising, puffery, smear campaigning and hype are all tactics to spread information that is less than accurate. The problem is that although complex issues should trigger the desires to understand, systematize, organize and analyze information, human nature predisposes most of us to be intellectually lazy. We are easily satisfied if information (whether accurate or not) fits our mindset, our lifestyle and our belief systems. In the absence of cognitive dissonance, the desire to deeply analyze information is diminished. If our peer community accepts the same information as truth, our beliefs are further reinforced.
The Car Radio Example
Lazy logic is making an assumption that a correlation exists on the basis that two events occur within close temporal proximity. For example, years ago my neighbor used to give me a ride to work on occasion. Oddly enough, every time I rode in his car, the radio would stop working. Lazy logic tells us that I, in some way, interfered with the car radio signal. That assumption could lead to many other assumptions, such as I am an alien or I am radioactive. Both false.
So why did the radio stop working? Well, I left out one small bit of information. The only days my neighbor drove me to work were days that it rained and I didn’t want to ride my bicycle. Now, can you guess why the radio didn’t work? Well, his car was old and it had some wiring issues. Evidently, when it rained, something got wet and messed up the radio connection. The fact that I was in the car each time this happened is just a confounding variable and irrelevant to the real cause-and-effect relationship.
Listen to the Science
“Listen to the science.” This is seemingly good advice. It sounds intelligent. It appears to be more than “just knowing”. If a fact is based on science, then believing it appears to show that the individual has done some higher level analysis—or at least is accepting for fact the conclusions of others who have conducted higher level analysis. For some scientific concepts, like gravity, “listening to the science” is easy because understanding gravity is relatively intuitive and constant. Not all science is constant. Science, by definition is an ever-changing process. Science evolves. As new knowledge is revealed, “facts” change. For example, carbon dating, which at best is a good theory, has evolved since the 1940s and calibration methods have changed. Those changes have led to re-considerations about the probable dates for the Dead Sea Scrolls, theories relating to deforestation on Easter Island and the probable dates of the first human settlements on Easter Island.
The Worst Type of Lazy Logic
The argument “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem” is one of the worst types of lazy logic because it is contingent on a long list of assumptions that need to be true. This argument is often used to persuade individuals to join in the collective mindset and belief system of a particular group. Here is a list of assumptions that need to be true to accept the conditional cause-and-effect claim, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem”:
- The problem needs to exist.
- A solution needs to exist.
- The assumed solution needs to be the only solution. It is conceivable that being part of a different solution may actually be a better choice for mitigation of negative effects. For example, if a climate activist believes voting for a “green” candidate and “green” legislation is the solution to climate change and uses this argument to garner support for political initiatives, the argument is faulty. An Amish individual who does not vote would be considered part of the climate change problem when in reality that individual leads a life that is more representative of positive climate action than most of the general population.
- The proposed solution cannot result in additional negative impacts. Otherwise, it would be part of the problem.
- The proposed solution needs to work.
- The proposed solution cannot negate any other possible solutions.
- The proposed solution needs to be fair.