Monday, May 21, 2012

Its What You Know For Sure That Keeps You From Learning

The Lamp of Learning

I've liked this saying ever since I heard it via a friend many years ago:

"Its what you know for sure that keeps you from learning."  

I think its a good reminder for everyone, including me.  We all develop a certain view of the "way things are", and it can be uncomfortable to be forced to rearrange that thought-system to fit new, contradictory information.  Psychologists use the term "cognitive dissonance" for the disturbing sensation that comes from hearing/seeing something that does not fit our existing view of things.  For many topics, that isn't a big deal.  We can continue to be open minded, and thus actually "learn."  For some subjects, that isn't so easy.

The Example of Politics

When it comes to certain, emotion-laden topics, it is harder to stay in a learning mode.  Politics certainly falls into that category.  Particularly in this age of highly polarized debate, and unabashedly partisan "news" sources, it is possible for people to almost only ever hear perspectives that fit with what they already think about political topics.  That makes it possible to be extremely "sure" about a viewpoint that is actually quite biased.  There used to be another saying:

"you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts."  

In our current, hyper-partisan world, many people feel entitled to their own facts.

When being too sure to learn reaches the level of conspiracy theory thinking, it can become irreversible.  When someone in that mode is provided with calm, reasonable arguments backed up with data, psychologist have found that the conspiracy theorist takes that as proof the the source is obviously part of the conspiracy.  For example, we see this with "birthers" and those who believe President Obama is Moslem.  No amount of real information can shift their thinking.

What We "Know" About Food and Agriculture

Food and agriculture issues also seem to fall into the category of such strong emotion that people can become extremely "sure" about their beliefs, even if their only view of farming is what they have read on-line from self-selected sources.  There is a narrative out there on various "green" and "food movement" sites that paints a black and white picture of agricultural systems.  In this view of the world, there is an evil, industrialized, greed-driven, chemical-dependent form of agriculture in which corporations are trying to "control the food supply."  Usually those who believe the previous picture also believe that there is a pure, Organic/local/small farm alternative which is flawless.

Personal Experience

Over the last three years of blogging and participating in comment streams, I have encountered many people who are actually still able to learn about food and agriculture, even though they have digested a good deal of disinformation along the way.  It is these sorts of interactions which motivate me to continue to attempt to supply some real information about farming and agriculture, and to confront various myths.

I have also had interactions with people who have adopted the full-blown conspiracy view of Ag.  Typically I have posted something positive about biotechnology or some fact-based perspective on the limitations of Organic.  The responses from "true believers" are rarely any actual interaction with the information I have provided.  They tend to be one of two themes or a combination of them:  ad hominem attacks on me (usually that I am a shill for Monsanto), or the recitation of several myths (GMO is killing everyone, the Indian farmer suicide story, the saved seed threat...).

The Issue of Tone

As with political comment streams, people use the cloak of anonymity to say these things with a nastiness that one would hope would never happen in a face-to-face interaction.  I don't take this personally, and if it is something where I have moderation responsibility, I always go ahead and publish the comment.  I think that people do a great deal to undermine their "side" of the discussion by being uncivil. When I actually attempt to address the disinformation in a comment, it is with little expectation of  the commenters potential to learn something that contradicts their thinking.  I respond to provide the counterbalance for the still rational folks who may read it.  The regular participants on the Biofortified site do an excellent job in these sorts of interactions.

Wishing Skeptics Could Meet Real Farmers and Technologists

I have often wondered what would happen if some of these people who "know" all sorts of terrible things about farming and technology could actually meet the sorts of farmers, researchers, and business people that I have known over the years.  These are people who a friendly and decent, hard working and enthused about what they do.  They care about issues like the environment and worker safety.  They feel good about being a part of feeding the world.  I've probably met thousands of people associated with farming or agricultural technology in some way, and never met one who fits the nasty caricature that is presented by the extreme, "food movement."  Unfortunately, not that many people get to meet the members of this community.

So, in the mean time, I will keep trying to present real information about agriculture to those folks that are still not too sure of what they know to learn something new.

You are invited to comment here or to email me at

Lamp of Learning image from Wikimedia


  1. Steve: You continue to be a refreshing voice of sanity in the wilderness.

  2. Thanks, Steve. I receive the same kind of responses from the "cognitive dissidents." You correctly point out that if you say something positive about GE or less than positive about organic, you are a shill of some sort. It borders on pathological. I've been in numerous discussions on FB regarding GE and organic. If you present scientific evidence which contradicts their view, the scientists have been bought off. I once pointed someone to a study and her response was, "Well, that's just your opinion." Holy mackerel. You can't win. People put their fingers in their ears and chant, "lalalala." keep up the good work.

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