I’ve been pondering the more than 400 comments from my last post at Care2.com: “Since other animals are predators, why shouldn’t we eat animals.” Some were supportive; some provided constructive feedback; some were nasty. Many went back and forth with increasing vitriol between those commenting. It was at times disappointing and discouraging, but mostly, it was very disturbing.
Too often commenters bandied about “facts” that weren’t facts at all. For example, some supporting the overall thesis of my essay said that humans are herbivores. Others arguing against the thesis of my essay said that humans require meat. Neither claim is true. Some said that science reveals that plants can suffer and feel just like animals, but there is no science to support such a claim. These false “facts” were flung about, and then argued about, with everyone able to find a website or article to support their view, but actual truth was in short supply. And truth is precious.
I’m worried about our culture’s relationship with truth. I’m concerned that we’re not educating our children to parse the messages they receive and determine what is true and what is not. When anything can be written and spread on the Internet, then anyone can argue that they hold the truth because they read it on a website. Without the ability to distinguish opinion from fact, and without the capacity to evaluate information critically, we will be at the mercy of whomever does the best job at marketing and at saying what the majority wishes to hear.
I was recently reading a bestselling book on nutrition. I deeply respect the author of this book, who is a physician who has helped so many thousands of people to overcome terrible health problems through a plant-based diet. His book refers to many scientific studies that support his dietary prescriptions. But when he wrote that primates were “the only animals on earth to taste sweet and see color,” I was brought up short by this falsehood. How could someone so dedicated to science, research and truth write something so patently wrong?
He, like all of us – myself included – cannot possibly research and investigate every claim.
In fact, we can only rarely do any true research at all beyond investigating the sources and protocols behind any given statement. We must rely on those sources and methodologies we trust and hope that they are doing their job. But even the most reputable scientific journals have published papers that have later been discovered to be inaccurate. We may rightly rely upon The New York Times over the National Enquirer, but the Times sometimes gets it wrong, and occasionally (e.g., the John Edwards affair) the Enquirer gets it right.
So what are we to do?
The best we can do is to try to be vigilant about getting our facts right. Trusting a single source for information, relying on an organization with an agenda as one’s primary purveyor of truth, depending upon only a couple of news sources – these are all bound to skew information. If we’re going to buy into a perspective, it’s critical that we be willing to learn about other perspectives before we uncritically spread what we have decided is gospel. If we’re going to be informed we need to listen to, watch and read a variety of news sources and if we’re going to be purveyors of information, we can at least say, “I read in [x, y, or z] or saw on [a, b, or c] …” as a way of identifying the source of our information rather than presenting it as inviolate truth.
Then let’s offer our perspectives with a bit of humility, knowing that, with rare exceptions, we weren’t the ones to do the basic research, investigate at the actual source, or discover the information on the ground or in the field. This might have the added benefit of increasing the civility of our discourse and laying the groundwork for greater dedication to discovering what is, in fact, true.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of dreamsjung via Creative Commons.