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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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I think my husband heartily regrets the day he surprised me with my first smartphone. Why? I enjoy reading about science, and I quickly discovered that a world of knowledge was Literally. At. My. Fingertips.

There was a day when I would readily lose myself in a book or a magazine article. Not so much anymore. Now I have my phone, or my tablet! I can still shut out the rest of the world within moments by stumbling across an interesting article posted on Facebook by Science News, Biofortified, or dozens of other science or ag organizations.

Science on social media

Links to thought-provoking science and ag-focused articles abound on social media, but the comments can be caustic.

The pitfall of following science news sources online, though, is the comments sections. Back in the day, if you read an article about a new science discovery in a paper magazine, you might discuss what you just read with someone nearby. But that was pretty much it.

 

But now! We have the ability to comment immediately, online, about everything! See a headline that grabs your attention? Click! Read! Comment! Oh wait… I know what I think just by the headline; I don’t need to read the whole story. In fact, I’m going to post a comment expressing what I think [types feverishly…]. There.

Have you ever furtively Googled a texting/commenting abbreviation because you didn’t know what it stood for? Yeah, me too. Last week I looked up this one: tl;dr. If you’re old like me (I’m in my mid-40s, which feels dang old if you spend any time in the social media world), you may not have known that one. I’ll save you looking it up. It means, “too long; didn’t read.” Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted a comment on an article you didn’t read all the way through, or (ahem) didn’t read at all. Go on, raise that hand, no one’s watching you. (Seriously—they’re all looking at their devices.)

I’ve actually caught myself gauging whether or not I want to take the time to read an article by perusing the comments first. I’m not sure this is a healthy habit, and I have yet to discern what it is about the comments that help me make up my mind. Whatever it is, reading online comments is an interesting and often depressing foray into human nature.

Judging by what I read in online comments, a whole bunch of people’s moms must have told them as children, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Unless you’re online, then you may type whatever the #%&! you want.” The mean stuff bothers me, of course. I remind myself that there just SEEMS to be a lot of hateful trolls, but (hopefully) they are a small minority of folks who make a lot of racket.

The commenters who irritate me most, however, aren’t the trolls who simply thrive on poking people to get emotional reactions. No, it’s the people who casually make snide comments who really disappoint me.

Want to fall into a comment abyss? Read the comments regarding a topic like pesticides or GMOs. Along with outright hateful statements, you’ll run into stuff like this: “Know anything about how toxicology works?” And, “Science, much?” I think the reason these more subtle jabs irk me so much is that they often come from people who otherwise share valuable, credible information. Then they ruin it by being snide. It’s as though they care more about being right than about advancing the conversation.

Here’s something to keep in mind if you’re commenting online. The people “listening” aren’t just the ones commenting. A whole bunch of folks like me are reading quietly, taking in information, and deciding for themselves who and what to believe. And they won’t say (type) a word.

Relationship researcher John Gottman found that contempt is a key predictor of whether or not a marriage will last. I believe this is also true of the often invisible interactions that take place online. It doesn’t matter how much valuable information you can share; if you present it with even the tiniest bit of scorn, readers will “divorce” you and stop listening.

If you really want to maintain a happy “marriage” between your ideas and the people you hope to share them with, online or IRL (in real life), restrain yourself from being sarcastic. Truly. Just be nice. I’m listening.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the April/May 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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