The problem is never how to get new,
innovative thoughts into your mind,
but how to get old ones out.
I am convinced that one of the hardest challenges for a human is to keep an open mind. Naturally, the first step in forming an opinion is to develop the desire to have an opinion on a given topic. Many people do not have such an inclination. They cannot be reached until the issue hits them directly between the eyes and impacts their lives.
The problem all of us face in forming opinions is that because we are so overwhelmed with information, time dictates that we usually fall into familiar ruts, with familiar opinions, from familiar opinion makers. Without new views that come with being around different people, we become segregated from any challenges to our viewpoints. This tends to make our views stale and predictable. When your views are challenged, they are either going to be modified, abandoned, or strengthened. This can only be a positive. But it can be a good bit of work and emotionally and intellectually trying.
This is the basis for Core Principal #7, KEEP THE QUESTION OPEN. It suggests that to find common understanding it is necessary that we not talk through each other. This principle doesn’t tell you that you must decide today, or tomorrow, or ever on any given issue. It doesn’t tell you that you must agree with any one side of an issue. It merely asks you to let the issue simmer. It is the slamming of the door, never to be opened again, that hurts our ability to make better decisions and access better information.
An example of this is the evolution of my thinking on nuclear power. During my senior year of high school, the national debate topic was energy independence. When I was first confronted with information about nuclear power, during a hot summer at debate camp at Baylor University (yes I know how that sounds like the band camp reference in the move: American Pie), I was struck at the horrific consequences if a plant suffered a nuclear meltdown..
I absolutely knew after reading this information, that no one would choose to argue for increasing our energy independence by building more nuclear power plants. But as the year developed, that’s precisely what my partner and I proposed. After digging deeper into the details, the information seemed almost fool proof. Like countless other debaters, my partner and I won many debates pushing the nuclear option for power generation.
However, when we went to the regional debate tournament in 1979, a funny thing happened at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. A nuclear reactor experienced a partial meltdown. This incident is credited with bringing the nuclear power industry to its knees as it cemented the idea that nuclear power was not as safe as advertised. Black swan events continued in the coming years with even greater consequences as the events at Chernobyl and Fukushima demonstrated. Until Three Mile Island, I was a believer in the safety of nuclear power.
I now find that view no longer tenable. The risk of meltdown and the inability to get rid of nuclear waste, finally convinced me that nuclear energy as currently produced, is not a safe option. More importantly it demonstrated that while a deeper understanding of an issue is preferable, it is still not foolproof. Of course this doesn’t argue for pursuing excellence in shallowness. Nor should we just decide issues intuitively without facts. Being informed greatly increases the odds of your opinion being correct. However, sometimes the best available information, that may win debates, ultimately may end up being wrong.
Most of us speak rather authoritatively on hotly contested issues even when we know little about them. For instance, how many of these issues do you have an opinion on and how many of those opinions are truly informed? Does waste water disposal from fracking cause earthquakes? Is solar power the future of energy? Is recycling worth the effort? Was it a good idea to phase out incandescent light bulbs? Will commercial passenger space travel ever be successful? Does taking off your shoes at the airport make you safer? These probably don’t keep you up at night, but how about these?
What does the hard data on legally concealed handguns suggest about their impact on crime? Is climate change a reality? Was 911 an inside job? Is a war with Iran to be encouraged or avoided? These are still largely factual issues and not value issues. These examples suggest that we may have a hard judgment on an issue (factual conclusion which isn’t open to challenge), that doesn’t relate to our values, but which we have a very emotional attachment. Often times our political leanings are some of our hardest judgments. But if we can learn to save our hardest judgments for those issues that spring from our values, like abortion, gay marriage, or the role of religion in politics, then hopefully we can work together on the multitude of other challenges.
Some ideas have such a perfect elegance that they are hard to resist. But they can be wrong. Our inability to make perfect judgments shouldn’t paralyze our willingness to take a position on a subject. We learn more by our mistakes than we do by our successes. So the message is not to give up, but simply disconnect from really hard judgments in areas that are not central to your values. It is not our depth or shallowness on the facts, that ultimately leads us to better understanding, but rather our willingness to allow our understanding to evolve as we assimilate new information. When you let go of the ego’s desire to be right, and simply ask yourself if you are correct, then you are learning rather than debating. As always, it is your choice. Thou Mayest!
Big D, The Esoteric Bunker
P.S. By the way, we debated four times during that week in March when the Three Mile Island accident was playing out. We went 1-3 in those debates and didn’t advance in the tournament, although we were favored to do so.
What did I learn from this debate debacle?
- Nuclear power is not reliable
- Timing is everything
- I probably wasn’t as good of a debater as I thought I was
- All of the above