On a daily basis, science is making new discoveries. It is almost impossible to watch the news or visit a favorite website without information from a study refuting medical practices or a once highly regarded belief of the natural world. When firmly held beliefs are challenged people often refuse to accept the evidence because what they originally learned has becomes deeply ingrained. Some have core beliefs that resonate to the inner-most being and they will be skeptical of anything contradicting what is thought to be true. Why?
Beginning with the toddler years, people are taught those in charge or with authority have the answers. Parents, teachers, coaches, doctors, pastors, and every other authority figure have the ability to influence the youth in their lives1. Children and even most adults do not question what they are taught by experts. For example, the doctor went to college for a long time to learn her trade; certainly the diagnosis must be correct. Only 30% of people seek a second opinion or complete any significant research into what their doctor recommends2. Most people accept information passed by authority figures or textbooks to be an infallible fact.
The ironic thing is most of the beliefs passed down are learned from mentors who, in turn, have passed down what their mentors have taught. Many things learned are part of a passing of the torch from generation to generation. For the most part, this is not a bad thing. Passing information to another and adding more nuggets of wisdom and experience makes the next carrier more effective than the last. For example, most of our military traditions, techniques, and procedures have been taught and passed down for centuries with the core principles intact and only changes in the method of delivery or style. Religions, science, medical practices, and other philosophies have been passed in the same way.
The danger lies in the belief there is no other way and the learning law of primacy takes the brunt of the blame for this. This law suggests what is learned first is learned best3. Behaviors and beliefs learned as children, teenagers, and even adults model their actions after those of role models4. In this way, people become linked to certain beliefs and when faced with learning new information, a skill, or a task, the perspective of the teacher or role model is the one adopted by the student. The military recognizes the power of this and stresses strict enforcement of teaching right the first time; there is not enough time to “unlearn” something taught wrongly5.
As I taught C-17 pipeline students fresh out of basic training how to repair a cargo aircraft worth $250 million each, I wanted to ensure they were not simply doing what others taught or told them; rather, they needed to verify the exact procedure in the books. I illustrated this by asking if their uniforms were on properly. All would say ‘yes’ with confidence. When asked how they knew they were; all replied with the same ‘my training instructor told me how to put it on this way.’ Then I would make them sweat and ask if they ever read the regulation governing wear of the uniform and how could they be certain they weren’t lied to. Their jaws would usually drop as I would close by saying, ‘basically, you’re telling me that you do not even know if you’re dressed properly right now. This is a perfect example of the faith people place in role models and teachers. These students would have never even given a second thought to what they were told.
When taught something new, students need to verify the facts. Sometimes those teaching may make a mistake and pass bad information or the students could even misunderstand the information presented. Their way is often correct, but not necessarily the best method. There could be a much more effective way to do something as displayed by Terry Moore at a conference. He showed the crowd how many were tying their shoes incorrectly. Certainly each person had their laces tied; however with one simple change, he was able to make the knot better6.
This is also exemplified by considering the use of the Internet to accomplish research. In this Information Age, people flock to a search engine and take the information at face value. When they land on Wikipedia or a blog, the source is considered to be accurate. However, one must think of the agenda of the writer and their credentials. Are they an expert in the field? What is their educational or professional background? For example, the CEO of Coca Cola would be a biased source if researching the best soft drink company. Information could be questionable as Wikipedia warns, “Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start: they may contain false or debatable information7.”
53% of Internet users settle for the first link on the first page of a search engine result8. Therefore many give the top marketer the most credibility when they may not be the best source, but they have the ability to draw a crowd to their website. This is how the Information Age is continuing the effect from the law of primacy. The seeker must ask three questions when challenging or reaffirming something taught: 1) where was the source found? The Harvard website would be a better source of financial information than a personal blog. 2) Who is the author? Medical advice is better from a doctor than someone with no scientific or medical training. 3) Is the information timely and appropriate? An article about computers in the 1980s is not as relevant as one written within the current year, because technology changes so quickly9. Bottom line: research numerous sources and make sure they are credible.
Another major pitfall of research is it usually accomplished to justify the perspective of the investigator otherwise known as research bias. This occurs when people are researching a question or piece of information and the evidence collected is used to support the original thought and they are often not open to any other possibilities10. Most researchers do not even realize they are doing this. To combat this, it is important to seek different points of view and research each. There are at least two sides to every story and to each side their view is the best option. Political party affiliations are a perfect example of this as each party has strong opinions about certain issues. Therefore to gain different points of view, a researcher would need to look at the argument from each party for a particular issue. To attack this with an open mind to read and try to understand the other party’s argument is very difficult for most. This goes back to the how people are raised as 70% of children adopt the political party views of their parents11. When reading the view which opposes the one a person believes often evokes strong feelings and even though the words are read; the argument is discounted immediately.
Listening and learning other options or points of view is a great way to strengthen the mind and challenge what has been taught. Consider that many ancient societies considered the Earth to be flat or even a cube and most accepted this view passed on to them for centuries. It took open-minded thinkers to question and challenge this known “fact.” Those like Aristotle who rationalized the Earth was spherical because of numerous observations he made12. He looked at all of the perspectives he could find and made his decision based off what added up in his own mind. Evidence he collected pointed towards what he considered to be the best option when compared with the other choices.
Each person has the ability to make decisions on his own. Will that decision be based on what he or she has investigated and truly believes? Or will it be based blindly off of what someone else has taught? It is good to question conventional thought and often there are not shifts in the belief. Just as the students who were not certain if they were even dressed properly, now there will be confidence in decisions based on personal research and independent thought.
1. Hagy, J. (2012, May). Nine dangerous things you were taught in school. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/jessicahagy/2012/05/02/nine-dangerous-things-you-were-taught-in-school/
2. Harvard Health (2011, November). Doctor’s diagnosis: On second thought. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-11-30/health/sc-health-1130-second-opinion-20111130_1_second-opinion-primary-care-doctor-misdiagnosis
3. Tulving, E. (2006). On the law of primacy. Retrieved from http://alicekim.ca/OnTheLawOfPrimacy.pdf
4. Shuchmann, L. (2013). The importance of role modeling for our children. Retrieved from http://www.parenting.org/article/importance-role-modeling-our-children
5. The Drill Pad (2013). Laws of learning. http://www.drillpad.net/DP_IRL_Laws.htm
6. Moore, T. (2005). How to tie your shoes. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/speakers/terry_moore.html
7. Wikipedia.org (2013). Using Wikipedia as a research tool. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About
8. Miller, M. (2012, October). 53% of organic search clicks go to first link. Retrieved from http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2215868/53-of-Organic-Search-Clicks-Go-to-First-Link-Study
9. Columbia College (2013). Evaluating the credibility of your sources. Retrieved from https://www.college.columbia.edu/academics/integrity/credibility
10. Pannucci, C. & Wilkins, E. (2010, August). Identifying and avoiding research bias. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917255/
11. Lyons, L. (2005, January). Teens stay true to parents’ political perspectives. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/14515/teens-stay-true-parents-political-perspectives.aspx
12. Simanek, D. (2006). The flat Earth. Retrieved from http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/flat/flateart.htm