Consistent Worldviews Suck

I woke up this afternoon at 5:30, the setting sun casting a golden glow over the cityscape outside my window. Jesus- I slept 15 hours! I was supposed to meet my friends for Indian food at 6, so I hopped out of bed, threw on some clothes, and hurried down the stairs. My host family was nowhere to be found, so I assumed they were out for the day, and sent my mom a mail telling her I’d be out for dinner. I thought it was odd that the door was deadbolted from the inside, but didn’t pay much attention. Made it to the station, called my friend to tell him I’d be late, and got a confused silence, and then “um, that’s tonight, right?” from the other end of the line.

Turns out I had slept for three hours, not fifteen, and was about to hop on a 6am train to a very sleepy, very closed Indian restaurant. I left the platform, walked home (noticing on the way back that the convenience store wasn’t even open yet), and crashed until 11 or so. When I woke up and walked downstairs, my host family had a pretty good laugh at my expense; my mom wondered why I felt the need to email her at 5:45am about my dinner plans for the evening.

If I had woken up at 4 or 6, the disconnect between time and outside light probably would prevented the 12-hour disconnect, but the important thing is that once I decided what time it was, I ignored everything indicating otherwise until reality got explicitly slapped into my face. Human brains are wired to construct a consistent, contiguous picture of reality, and we once we’ve started to create one, we tend to try and fit all subsequent input into our existing worldview (rather than reconsider whether our worldview is correct). In other words, at a very physical, primal level, we really hate to admit we’re wrong.

It’s not a tendency we can easily change, but it’s got some pretty big implications for the way we look at education and fanaticism. Once there’s enough evidence for someone to form some semblance of a worldview, they are likely to fit every piece of subsequent knowledge they encounter into it, discarding or twisting around facts that don’t quite line up with their preconceptions. That’s a big part of why we have so many otherwise smart people arguing silly points of view- opinions were formed in childhood, and since then, their brains have selectively accepted only those facts that back up their initial conceptions of how the world is.

What’s the solution? I don’t know if there is one, but I think teaching the importance of the scientific method, and praising kids who change their ideas because of evidence to the contrary, is a good place to start. I’m not against religion as a whole, but faiths that tell their followers to look for all their answers in a single, infallible holy book are the ones that create bigots, violent zealots, suicide bombers, and religious wars. Promoting method may not solve minor disconnects like this morning’s, but it’s likely to help us get over the bigger, more damaging ones in our society.