Sunday, March 5, 2017

Progressive People Revise Beliefs

Progressive people are willing to revise beliefs. What does this mean? Revising beliefs means being able to critically analyze and challenge ones own assumptions as new information becomes available. When this happens, progressive people make adjustments to their belief system to incorporate new information. It works something like this:

Jane believes all donuts taste alike because so far this has been her experience. But one day, Jane is approached by The Best Donuts in the World salesman who offers her a free sample.
Jane is certain it will be no better than every other donut but politely agrees to try the sample. She puts it in her mouth. What happens next is crucial. Jane could reject the delectable morsel that is tantalizing her taste buds by finding things that are wrong with it (not her favorite flavor, not her favorite type of donut, it’s an exception – it’s good but could never be reproduced, etc.). This by far is the easiest route to take. It requires no critical thinking on Jane’s part. Jane is able to thank the nice salesman for the free sample and tell herself she has had better. In this case, she walks away fooling herself and missing out on really awesome donuts. Worse, she has helped stifle The Best Donuts in the World from becoming a huge success all because she didn’t want to change her view. Alternatively, Jane could critically analyze her own schema (what she knows about donuts so far) and incorporate this new information – not all donuts are alike. Critical analysis takes a lot more courage because she must challenge her own assumptions and admit to herself that she has been wrong all along. If Jane is a true progressive thinker, she will take the second option and challenge her assumptions, walking away with a dozen or so of scrumptious confectioneries and a new adjusted belief system. The change may be modest: “most donuts are alike but The Best Donuts in the World are significantly better.” Or it may be extreme: “you cannot judge a donut by its sprinkles.” Either way, Jane will have shown critical thinking; she is able to take in new information that contradicts her prior belief system. This is how progress actually happens.

Imagine a world where no one took on any new information that contradicted their prior belief system. Copernicus would refuse to believe the planets rotated around our sun and therefore not bother to investigate. Edward Jenner would have watched his family and many more die of smallpox. Marie Curie would have never discovered radiation and x-rays or cancer treatments might be mythology today. These are just but a few major discoveries that have positively affected our lives on planet Earth. Progress means we must challenge assumptions including our own.

Refusing to accept new information about issues sounds an awful lot like what progressives are fighting against in political circles. Global climate change, gender inequality, racial inequality, disability rights and inequality – to name a few, are things that the more conservative politicians seemingly refuse to believe are problems at all. It seems easy to find examples of the conservative side not taking in new information. But what about when it is the self-proclaimed progressive side?

There is much to be learned from groups not like ourselves. Today, it is easier to hear from these groups thanks to social media. Sadly, however, I do not see critical thinking happening from the progressive side in many cases. Instead, old ideals are firmly rooted and seemingly not modifiable. New ideas that contradict old thinking are dismissed as anomalies or flat out ignored. Take if you will, the recent controversy over the Social Security Administration’s Representative Payee Gun Database Rule. This rule was put in place during the Obama administration and was vehemently opposed by disability rights activists. It was opposed not because these groups are pro-NRA or even pro-gun rights. It was opposed because “the proposed rule is the product of a tendency in our society to link disability and violence despite a wealth of scientific evidence showing that there is no link between the two” (ASAN, 2016). Opposing this rule, however, seemingly went against the status quo - that progressives are for strict gun control. But when one critically analyzes the situation it is recognized that the problem is not about gun control. Rather it is about labeling an already disenfranchised group as potentially dangerous adding more stigma to that of which is already an enormous problem. It is really about using people as a scapegoat instead of addressing the real problem. Data does not support that this group as dangerous though you will hear tons of anecdotes from the progressives to support this weak argument. Just because something seems like it should be true, doesn’t mean it actually is, however. People with serious mental health disabilities are no more likely to commit violent acts than the next person (Fazel et al, 2009; Fazel et al, 2010). And though it takes some courage to change this schema, doing so is critical thinking.

Today the world is much smaller than it ever has been. The Internet has brought us close and has given a voice to many disenfranchised groups. Progressive organizations and the people within need to recognize this and critically analyze their prior schemas. Until they do, I have little hope that our society will actually progress past the mess in which we are currently living. Changing beliefs to incorporate new information will not be painless; but I promise it will be progressive.


ASAN (2016). ASAN Statement on SSA Representative Payee Gun Database Rule. At
Fazel S, Gulati G, Linsell L, Geddes JR, & Grann M (2009). Schizophrenia and violence: Systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS Medicine, 6, e1000120.
Fazel, S., Lichtenstein, P., Grann, M., Goodwin, G. M., & Langstrom, N. (2010). Bipolar disorder and violent crime: new evidence from population-based longitudinal studies and systematic review. Archives of General Psychiatry,67, 931-938.