Saturday, October 23, 2004


Originally uploaded by jonfobes.
NOTE: E-mail to Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton about a column he wrote for The Plain Dealer forum page to go with a project we’d been working on, pairing quotes from readers who bashed us — or stopped the paper — for being too liberal and pro-Kerry with quotes from other readers who bashed us as being too conservative and pro-Bush.

Read the column: To some folks 'be fair' means 'agree with me'

You wrote a very interesting column to go with all those reader quotes. I hope it made some people realize that bias is more in the eye of the beholder than on the pages of their newspaper.

I have long had a passionate interest in why people believe what they do. It flared in college during the reading of countless works of literature (you can’t get a master’s in English without reading a few mind-blowing novels) and erupted into a volcano of enthusiasm for philosophy and psychology after the dissolution of a 10-year marriage to a person who, though a journalist herself, never grasped the distinction between fact and opinion, at least not in regards her own concrete ideas. In short, like many of our readers, she was convinced of her completely correct views on a wide variety of topics. “Case closed, end of story,” was her mantra.

I can testify: Living with that for 10 years will get you thinking about the psychology of belief! And in the 10 years since I fled that miscarriage of a marriage, I have done lots of reading and writing on the topic, and I believe I’ve learned something, which you touched on in your column.


I think those “filter-equipped eyeglasses” you wrote about are quite common and powerful and come with a variety of lenses. Moreover, and ironically, the people with the thickest lenses are the ones who forget they’re wearing glasses. Which is to say: The more powerful the conviction, the greater the claims of objectivity — the more a person gets lost in his opinion, the more he thinks he’s “just facing facts” and “telling it like it is.”

In other words, to go back to your column, I am not saying we should not have “personal views” and beliefs, but I am saying that as journalists — and as mature adults and careful thinkers — we should, “be aware of them and guard against letting those views influence our judgment …” not just in the news pages but in day-to-day life, too. I think we need to work harder to recognize our opinions as opinions, our beliefs as beliefs and our judgments as our fallible judgments — not as “obvious” facts about the world, which we grasp through the grace of some magical or supernatural power or as Aristotle believed, through some “infallible intellectual intuition” that’s our birthright as human beings. In other words, we all have lenses that influence our judgment ... but they don't have to be a foot thick and dictate our judgment.


One of my favorite philosophers — a person I started to focus on just this year — is Karl Popper. He lived and wrote during most of the 20th Century and died in the late 1990s. He became famous writing about the philosophy of science and then grew in fame as a defender of freedom and critic of authoritarianism when he wrote the two-volume “The Open Society and It’s Enemies,” during WW II, a book amazingly relevant to our times today.

In short Popper believes that civilization is still in its infancy, as is shown by how we're torn between the open and closed societies. Popper said the closed society believes in eternal truths and magical powers; on the other hand, he believes the open society was founded on the ability of human beings to learn, think and do things better. He understood that it takes a toll on human beings to be responsible for their thoughts and actions, and that’s why much of the human race gravitates back toward the closed society, where core “truths” don’t have to be discussed, just accepted and followed without question. In other words, the open society and its members value thought, discussion and flexibility while the closed society and its members value belief, conviction and certainty.


Our country is probably the most open society in the world, yet it is populated by lens-encumbered people who seem intent on closing it down as much as they can. Indeed, I was struck by how the first presidential debate echoed Popper’s ideas:

“If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. … I just know how this world works, and that in the councils of government there must be certainty from the U.S. President.” — George W. Bush

“It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong. ... and certainty sometimes can get you in trouble. (But you can) learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right.” — John Kerry

Well, I fear I have droned on long enough. If you’re curious, here’s a link to the Popper Page on my Web site.

Finally, I thought Gloria and Mary Lou did a wonderful job with the page, and I sent your thanks to Racquel and Denise, who were so good about forwarding the quotes.


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