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Barbara S. Held, Ph.D., is Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College. A clinical psychologist, Held practiced therapy in Brunswick her first 15 years at Bowdoin.
On the anniversary of Jan. 6, I recalled a local car mechanic who said he believed I needed new tires. Upon asking why he believed that, he accused me of questioning his religious beliefs. I said I wasn’t questioning his religious beliefs, just the basis for his belief about my tires. The manager stepped in.
When people say they believe (or think) something is the case, they’re usually acknowledging lack of certainty, which I appreciate.
Religion aside, the distinction between believing a claim is true and knowing it is true has become lost in our socio-political world.
Plato called knowledge justified true belief. A belief that counts as knowledge must be true and reflect objective evidence of its truth. Former President Donald Trump may believe he won the election, but his belief is not true, given the objective evidence (even if Trump refuses to accept the evidence). Hence the “Big Lie” that led to the Jan. 6 Insurrection and that is reportedly believed by two-thirds of Republicans.
Many have used cagey language to get themselves off hooks of their own making. Consider Bill Clinton’s explanation to the grand jury about how he wasn’t lying when, regarding Monica Lewinsky, he insisted that “There’s nothing going on between us … It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, who declared his candidacy for the Republican Pennsylvania U.S. Senate primary, defended himself in 2014 against charges of fraudulent claims about weight-loss pills before a Senate subcommittee, using wordplay that hinged on what Oz himself believed.
According to Politico, then Republican Nevada Sen. Dean Heller asked, “Do you believe there’s a magic weight-loss cure?” And Oz responded, “If you’re selling something because it’s magical, no … If you’re arguing that it’s going to be magic because if you stop eating carbohydrates you’re going to lose a lot of weight, that’s a truthful statement.” Hmmm. Politico concluded that “Oz’s real product is: not weight-loss pills at all, but rather the promise of an alternative reality.”
It hardly relieves that Oz now turns to political wizardry. He wrote a piece in the Washington Examiner saying, “We must confront those who want to change the very soul of America and reimagine it with their toxic ideology … I’m running for the Senate to empower you to control your destiny, to reinvigorate our great nation.” Maybe he’ll make America “great” like Trump — with demagoguery, plus his magic-making diet pills.
While we all have beliefs, some public figures have knowledge to back them up, whereas all too many don’t. Those we can trust base their societally relevant beliefs on reliable evidence, admitting when they’re unsure and explaining when scientific progress dictates a change in course: think Dr. Anthony Fauci on mask recommendations. By contrast, tricksters make unqualified claims — for instance, about the COVID-healing powers of hydroxychloroquine (which Trump repeatedly promoted) and the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines, again with objective evidence to the contrary.
The saying “consider the source” once meant heed those with a good track record of truth-telling. Now it means heed whomever you prefer to believe, even when their claims fly in the face of strong evidence, because they reinforce your pre-existing beliefs.
With our polarized political landscape, it’s unlikely that raising Americans’ awareness of the distinction between believing and knowing will get most who’ve fallen prey to tricksters back to reality. It won’t end the pandemic. It won’t stop the efforts of those determined to turn our democracy into an autocracy, as they now work their toxic “magic” at the local level too, including municipal governments. But this distinction between believing and knowing might help put America’s body politic in a healthier place.
Although I’m no glass-is-half-full optimist, those one-third of Republicans who don’t believe the “Big Lie” give me hope that knowledge will prevail in America. Though I make no guarantees of success, I suggest we keep asking my favorite question: “How do you and/or they know that’s true?”