Why Intelligent People Disagree

One of the most amazing features of modern humanity is our individual uniqueness. Siri tells me that in 2018 there were 7,655,957,369 living human souls on our planet. That may have been true at one serendipitous instant, but its assuredly not true anymore. Every one of those persons is unique, distinct, and therefore special. Of course, there are people, twins for example, whose genes might be nearly identical at the moment they become two individuals, but from then on, they have different experiences. The differences between any two humans might be as subtle as how twins are positioned in the womb, or for everyone else, as profound as whether they grow up in Australia or Alaska with one parent or several, with many siblings or none, with pets or without, as males or females, with an extensive formal education or not, well fed or malnourished, what language or languages they speak, what cultures, and on and on and on. The astounding variety of genes and experiences produces a population of incomprehensible diversity.

No wonder we suffer disagreements, but why? If truth is a discoverable reality, why do we perceive it differently? Before we pursue such a question, we need to agree about some terms. There are at least three definitions of the word truth, and people mix them up all the time. If you believe what you are saying, you are telling the truth. If what you say is believed by many people or experts, and you believe they are all telling the truth, then you are also telling the truth. You are honest and sincere by definition. On the other hand, if what you say is actually true, you are obviously telling the truth, but ironically, you may not realize it. The first two definitions represent opinions about what you believe to be true. The last definition describes some absolute truth as established by God, Mother Earth, or the physical laws of the universe. Science, religion, and law among other disciplines, pursue the absolute truth using different rules and methods, but knowing an absolute truth often remains beyond our reach.

Honest people may disagree about absolute truth, such as how many unique human beings live on our planet. There is a number that is absolutely true at this instant, but undoubtedly no one knows it, and it just changed. We can offer our honest opinions, and in doing so we are telling the truth as we believe it to be, but intelligent people will likely disagree, except by utter coincidence.

Now you may ask, who are these intelligent people? For the sake of this discussion, it’s almost everyone. Just as we have unique experiences, some of us have more knowledge about a subject than other people. That knowledge might be highly specialized or unusual. Almost everyone has some aspect of life about which they are smart. No two people possess exactly the same knowledge. Wisdom is the ability to figure things out using what we have learned, and sometimes we call this common sense. Even wisdom has many forms, some people are highly effective in social settings, others can concentrate better when working alone without the distractions of social interactions.

Turn on any television news program where the talking heads are offering their views and you will hear differences of opinion. Sometimes, the differences lead to emotional arguments. Often the program ends without any resolution of the differences. Everyone is telling the truth, at least the first two types of truth defined earlier above. The absolute truth is left for us to discern, and we often disagree about it. Why?

It might be helpful if we identify the different reasons why intelligent people disagree. It turns out most disagreements result from several of these reasons. These are not exclusive reasons. If we know why people disagree, perhaps we have a better chance to come to some agreement.

Different Knowledge

This is the most obvious, but certainly not the most important reason for disagreeing. Differences in knowledge result from our different experiences, the source of our knowledge. Scientists disagree because they do and read different research, or because they interpret the same research differently. Lawyers and their juries disagree because they listen to different witnesses or understand the same witness differently. Physicians disagree because they observe different symptoms or because they interpret the same symptoms differently. We all disagree because we’ve gone to different schools, read different books, listened to different conversations, speeches, podcasts, and radio or television programs. We experience our world through our unique lens. Contrary to the trite expression, we are entitled to our own facts, because facts are open to honest interpretation based upon unique experiences.  Some but not all facts are actually true, but many facts are a matter of opinion or even quite misleading.  It’s a fact that I’m six feet tall, but a more careful measurement might say 6′ and 1/16″ inch.  In fact, they are both true and they are both facts.

We can come to a consensus when we acknowledge our differences and are willing to share our knowledge. If we discover why we have different information, we might learn to accept a common understanding.

Different Values

Sometimes we have different feelings about the same issues. Values conflicts are a common reason for disagreement. It is not easy to accept different values, especially values that we’ve held for much of our lives. Big political differences often result from differences in values. Take the issue of abortion as an example. It is a conflict between the value of freedom and the value of life. About half the people in our country think decisions such as this should be left to a woman, her physician, and her husband. Others believe that terminating a human life is never acceptable. These two groups disagree about the importance of these two competing values, freedom and life.

The resolution comes from values clarification, not an easy task. It takes an open mind and compassion for each other’s perspectives. Sometimes the power of the state must intercede, courts must rule. Even then, people accept the decision, but they still disagree. We may accomplish civility, but agreement remains beyond reach.

Different Assumptions

People often come to different conclusions because they start with different assumptions.   If you assume that human life begins at birth, you would decide that terminating a pregnancy is not terminating a human life. Your freedom to decide to end that pregnancy is not even a conflict of values. If you believe that a human life begins at fertilization or at some other point before birth, that assumption drives a completely different decision.

Assumptions often get us lost, both figuratively and literally. What if you are lost in the woods and you assume the more traveled path is the way home. You might be right. You might be wrong. We even make assumptions about the reliability and veracity of experts and commentators.

If you assume that nature is wonderful and human activities destroy that natural state, then you might decide to minimize human interference in the natural world. If you assume that nature is inherently dangerous, you might decide that human adaptation and mitigation is the best way to protect the population, even if that means modifying the natural world in ways that protect human life.

Getting to an agreement when two or more people disagree requires an evaluation of the assumptions that lead to their differences. Sometimes, we aren’t even aware of those assumptions. This takes discipline.

Different Associations

If I belong to a club that requires that I agree to certain things, I might find myself in disagreement with people who belong to different clubs. The word club is meant in the most general sense. It might mean family, tribe, partnership, organization, political party, fraternity or sorority, professional organization, church, congregation, religion, faith, corporation, nation, race, ethnic group, etc., ad infinitum.

To be a Democrat or a Republican requires certain beliefs, or you get rejected or diminished in stature within the party. Belonging to some group requires something from its members. You have to accept the values, assumptions, and knowledge of the group, or you may be expelled, excommunicated, or worse. It is not easy to change what a group holds as its mission or its values. Organizations have a certain amount of inertia. Change is difficult and usually slow unless a crisis occurs.

Wives and husbands come to agreements, virtual contracts sometimes subconsciously. It’s called loyalty. That loyalty is something of value. Disagreeing can sometimes break that connection, but healthy relationships find ways to compromise or resolve the differences. That is why we sometimes go along to get along. Peer pressure, especially among adolescents can be a powerful influence on decisions, often very bad decisions, unfortunately.

Different Goals

If your goal is to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, you may decide to ban the burning of fossil fuels. If your goal is human flourishing, you may decide to expand the availability of clean and reliable energy sources, including the appropriate burning of fossil fuels. Different goals lead to completely opposite decisions.

The surest way to solve a problem is to understand the issues involved and their causes before you decide on solutions. Getting to solutions requires mitigating all the causes, or at least most of them.

Different Incentives

If your livelihood depends on working for Acme Coal Company, you’re probably inclined to approve of coal as a natural resource for producing energy and many other products derived from coal. If you are offered financial support for your political campaign by a pharmaceutical lobbyist, you may be inclined to listen to that lobbyist in the future and come to some agreement related to support of the pharmaceutical industry or a particular corporation. There is nothing wrong with this in the legal sense. You have an important decision to make about the ethics of your favoritism if different lobbyists suggest different decisions or support.

What do you do when incentives are offered? There is a fine line or distinction between an incentive and a bribe or even extortion. You never want to cross the legal line, but the ethical line can be quite tempting if the incentives are significant. Not all such incentives are financial.

Different State of Mind

Emotional attachments to people and ideas affect our ability to agree or disagree with others. Open mindedness is a quality we usually value, but not always. Sometimes stubbornness is necessary to keep moving toward a shared objective. Indecisiveness can have tragic consequences. It is considered a character weakness. Alternatively, blind faith in an objective can result in consequences equally tragic. There is no human quality more dangerous than arrogance when it is coupled with ignorance.

When in a disagreement, listen to the other perspectives. Celebrate some humility. You might be right, but you might be dead wrong. The only way to find out is to explore all alternatives with an open mind.

About DocStephens

President Emeritus South Florida State College (Retired in 2013)
This entry was posted in Human Behavior, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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