Today, this week, this era. There are, at least, three necessary and interconnected abilities we need individually and collectively to survive. They are as — if not more — important now than they have been for generations. While I will not unpack them in a substantive way in this one post, they’ll continue to be a source of contemplation and writing for some time to come.
1. Literacy in Easily Obscured Areas
Distrust is ameliorated by literacy. When we understand something in a nuanced way, we are more likely to notice irregularities, false arguments, and conflations. This is especially important in two areas of our modern lives: data and media. People lacking critical thinking and literacy in these topics regularly share media and data to support weak arguments, or worse, obfuscate the truth.
“There are three kinds of lies,” wrote Mark Twain. “Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” which he incorrectly attributed to an English politician. For all attempts to be objective, data can be easily obscured and manipulated to support an argument. Correlation versus causation is a common mistake made by the data illiterate. Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations blog offers some funny examples of poor data conflation.
Media literacy is not a new topic. Numerous books, college courses, and blogs exist on the topic. It’s proof that many of us know that critical thought is necessary in the media ecosystem. Yet, there’s still a large population of people who are easily duped by misinformation and opinion-driven articles cloaked as news. People write this content to generate strong emotions (disgust, outrage, disbelief, etc.) to get our attention. This intent not only serves advertising interests, but also the goal of social media platforms to keep us endlessly scrolling their feeds.
To survive, we need to think critically about the information presented to us. We should ask questions like: Who wrote the article? Why should I not trust this author? Who produced the study? How does this headline or article make me feel? Is the source reputable? Is the author trying to persuade or inform?
The best diet advice I’ve ever read is from Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food: “Eat (real) food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” There’s a natural parallel to our media diet: Consume honest information. Not too much. Mostly facts. To check the reliability of your media sources, I recommend Ad Fontes Media’s Media Bias Chart.
2. Adapt to Changing Environments
A common theme in books by historian Jared Diamond is the need for humans to adapt to their surroundings. The fall of nearly every great civilization or empire traces to an inability to adapt to changing environments or conditions. When humans refuse to respond to new information, the results can be catastrophic.
Change is a difficult thing for humans. We prefer tradition and what’s known. We want stability and assurance in a consistent future. Yet, change is constant and inevitable. To survive, we must strengthen our ability to be creative and optimistic in the face of uncertainty. As a species, society, or individual, adaptability is a competitive advantage.
In a collected list of definitions of intelligence, one especially stands out:
Intelligence is the “…ability to adapt effectively to the environment, either by making a change in oneself or by changing the environment or finding a new one … intelligence is not a single mental process, but rather a combination of many mental processes directed toward effective adaptation to the environment.”
In a blog on Drexel University’s website, Melissa Cory, the co-founder of the Women in Leadership Conference in Oklahoma, writes that there are four ways to strengthen your adaptability skills. They include:
- Change your thought process
- Force yourself to take risks
- Encourage others to be open-minded
- Embrace learning
The good news is that we can improve our openness to change and ability to adapt to changing environments. With the litany of forces at play in our society (from technological change to climate change), the skills are more important now than ever. The two key prerequisites to improving these skills are a belief in a growth mindset and a commitment to the pursuit of truth.
3. Shared Understanding of Truth and Reality
When we create a shared reality with others, we connect with them, we establish or strengthen our social relationships, and thus fulfill our fundamental need for belonging (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). A shared understanding of truth and reality allows to lever our relationships into making meaningful change and progress. It gives us common footing to tackle our most significant challenges.
As a whole, Americans are struggling to create a shared understanding of truth and reality. There are significant groups of people who live in small bubbles and have even bought into baseless conspiracy theories. And, perhaps more insidious, there is a growing belief in postmodernism, where there are no facts and multiple truths are all weighed equally. Who doesn’t remember Kellyanne Conway’s infamous insertion of the phrase “alternative facts” into our shared lexicon?
There are a few factors contributing to the growing gap in our shared reality. They include the rise of mis- and dis-information and its spread on social media, aggregation towards likeminded others, and a distrust or skepticism in each other’s intentions. Without a conscious effort to push against these tendencies, we may lack even the fundamental desire to create shared understanding.
As a starting point to creating a shared understanding of truth and reality, I like one of Michael Gervais’ first principles: An unconditional, positive regard for the other. If we each mutually commit to start every conversation with this disposition, the likelihood of forging shared reality increases. It’s a tall task, but necessary if we intend to survive the challenges ahead.
There is no shortage of anxiety, fear, and distrust in our current era. Some people even make their livings through stoking these fires. The requirements for survival outlined above face strong headwinds. Yet, the incentives behind the outrage machine will fall apart if we each decide to focus on strengthening each of these necessary abilities.
I believe these a focus on these three interconnected skills will ensure our collective existence in the future. We must each commit to cultivate literacy in easily obscured areas, strengthen our adaptability to changing environments, and create a shared understanding of truth and reality.