Some people believe the Earth is flat. They’re wrong, of course, but don’t try to tell them that. They have their reasons. Those of us on the round-Earth team can smugly sit back, secure in our superior knowledge.
But what if it’s just an accident that you believe the Earth is round?
If you go to the Flat Earther website, you will find articles with titles like “The Mathematics of the Infinite Flat Earth” that cite Gauss’s law (a complex math theory), and “Early Parallaxian Theory in a Nutshell.” If someone who had really studied flat-earth philosophy challenged you to prove why you believe the Earth is round, are you sure you could do it? The fact that you’ve seen photos from space won’t cut it.
If you believe the Earth is round, you might not have better ways to logically explain your position than flat-Earthers have to explain theirs. You just happen to have come out on the right side of history on this particular topic.
We all “know” so many things about the world, life, and the price of gasoline – but if we were asked to prove why we know what we know about almost anything, we’d be hard-pressed to explain many things we believe. We would probably end up grumping, “I just know I’m right!”
And therein lies the problem. We “know” we’re right and the other guys are wrong. Worse, we might dismiss those who disagree with us as stupid, inferior, or infuriating. This pattern is easy to understand with an issue like the flat Earth, but what about our “knowledge” about Covid or climate change? Can we provide proofs and facts to support our claims?
Even when it comes to something more subjective, like our political opinions, knowledge of facts makes a difference. Who will be better prepared to vote in a presidential election? Someone who was swept up by popular opinion, swallowing snapshots of information without diving deeper? Or someone who understands both current events and historical precedents? On all levels, educating ourselves changes the conversation.
However, most of us are unwilling to consider the possibility that we are ignorant. We know a little bit about something and extrapolate to full-blown “knowledge” about situations that are incredibly complex and nuanced. We read a headline and accept a journalist’s interpretation of a scientific study or a world event. And then, magically, everyone who disagrees with us is wrong and stupid.
Overconfidence in our ability to assess information leads to error. Political conversations can be painful, but religious differences cause discomfort, too, mainly because each side “knows” it is right without considering that they might simply be unaware of information the other person has. For example, secular people know their professions well and might assume that because they are proficient at, say, medicine or law, they are qualified to judge religious texts. However, the religious person, who understands the full scope of the scriptural material, has a far more discerning awareness than the secular person may give credit for.
Just as the religious person should not try to cure his own pneumonia, the secular person should not make glib assumptions about religious ideas. As the Taoist sage Lao Tzu wrote, “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”
There is such a thing as truth: The Earth is round. As we go through our daily dialogues, let’s remember that other people’s opinions are not our enemies. Ignorance is our enemy. As Jews, citizens, and humans, we must seek truth, even when it may contradict deeply held beliefs.