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Archive for September, 2017

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I like being right, and it irritates people sometimes. (Just ask my husband.)

If I hear a factual inaccuracy on a topic I know well, I have to bite my tongue not to correct it. Maybe it’s because I’m an educator at my core. I want folks to base their beliefs and behaviors on facts.

But facts—things that are known, proven, and verifiable—don’t really matter.

Are you bristling right now? Are you thinking, “You’re wrong. They matter to me!” Hear me out.

How we feel always triumphs over the facts with which we are presented. Don’t believe me? How do you feel about GMOs? Vaccines? Climate change? Immigration? Breast feeding vs. formula? Nuclear energy? Motorcycle helmets? Pesticides? Politics? Have I hit any of your hot buttons yet? What’s running through your mind right now? Is your blood pressure more elevated than when you started reading this paragraph? How do you feel?

Now, pick a topic listed above that you feel strongly about. Search for websites you would recommend to others wishing to learn about it. What did you find? Did what you found support what you believe? Did you start reading a site and quickly close it because you knew it was wrong? How did you know it was wrong? Did you find a site that changed your mind?

Recently I had a long, heated discussion with a friend. Let’s call him Ken. Our conversation started on the topic of vaccines and quickly veered into agriculture. We talked late into the night, until I was trembling from the effort of balancing facts, feelings, and friendship.

Ken believes farmers are powerless victims of corporate control and ownership. He believes one seed company controls the government agencies that regulate our food supply. He thinks livestock are “crammed together” and treated cruelly for profit. He believes farmers grow corn to receive subsidies but he feels it’s not nutritious so they should grow something else instead.

My friend is intelligent and passionate, and like most people in our country, far removed from production agriculture. As we talked, the words “Facts don’t matter; feelings do” kept running through my mind, along with “Ken and his wife are our friends, and I want them to remain so after this dialog.”

It was like I was having two separate conversations. One out loud with Ken, and one internally, with myself. I reminded myself that Ken is a Marine, and—like my own husband—a disabled veteran. As we talked about the credibility of the CDC, FDA, and EPA, I remembered that many veterans have justifiable reasons to distrust government agencies as a result of their experiences with the DoD and VA.

I remembered the “backfire effect,” a recent research finding which revealed that people with strongly-held beliefs tend to cling to them even more tightly when presented with evidence to the contrary. I counseled myself to ask thoughtful questions about Ken’s beliefs instead of launching facts at him to “prove him wrong.”

At many points in the conversation, I thought of simply cutting it short by telling Ken I was tired and ready for bed. I was tempted to give up and write him off as misinformed and crazy. But, while he may have absorbed misinformation, he’s not crazy. I knew that to shrug him off as such would just widen the division we’re all experiencing now.

When the conversation ended, he thanked me for opening his eyes to new things to think about. I thanked him for challenging me.

In the end, I’m not sure I convinced him of anything. If I truly did open his eyes to new information, it wasn’t because I hurled facts at him. Hopefully it was because I tried to show how I felt, and that I cared about his beliefs even when I didn’t agree with them.

When I say facts don’t matter, what I really mean is facts don’t matter unless you acknowledge feelings first. If you skip that step, facts really don’t matter, because they won’t make a difference in what people believe.

As the saying goes: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the September-October 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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