Most of us like to believe we're well reasoned, thoughtful individuals. That the strong, life-affirming opinions we've formed — whether they're about politics, faith, the right way to poop in the woods, or the evils of large conglomerate outdoor brands — are the result not only of our values and experiences, but largely influenced by our intelligent and open minds, minds wide open to information and facts.
According to "How facts backfire," an article in the July 11th Boston Globe, researchers have found a disturbing tendency: "Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite."
It seems most of us hold certain sets of strong "facts" based on the beliefs lodged in our minds. It might be the right way to filter water (or why to skip it altogether), the likelihood of and proper response during a genuine bear attack, or whether eVent or Gore-tex is more breathable and therefore "better."
At times, the "facts" we hold onto are provably false (believe it or not, no one's right about everything). But, here's the really scary part: Even in the presence of correct, provable facts, individuals with deeply entrenched beliefs often just entrench themselves deeper when confronted with correct information. Basically, we can't admit we're wrong about certain beliefs. It's too threatening. So, we just dig in.
What does all of this have to do with the backcountry? Well, look around. We're all online, sorting through a glut of information, reading thousands of backcountry gear reviews before making decisions that affect our safety and survival, and discussing backcountry practices (often intertwined with beliefs and opinions) in community forums.
When we're uninformed or curious about a subject, it's helpful to have a community of fellow, informed enthusiasts to share information and help fill in gaps of knowledge. But, it's the topics we're oh-so-certain about and feel so strongly about that can cause problems. Then we're more likely to discount the facts that oppose our preconceived notions (That filter is bombproof and never breaks; clearly that idiot used it wrong!) and give greater credence to the facts that support our way of thinking and beliefs (That's right, everyone should travel with a cell phone and emergency beacon at all times).
If you look hard and long enough online, you'll find someone to support your beliefs.
Think none of this applies to you? Well, according to research cited in The Boston Globe article, the misinformed often have some of the strongest opinions, while "sophisticated thinkers" are even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. If you don't fall into the first group on some point, perhaps you fall into the second on another.
So, what's the takeaway here? Well, the next time a hot topic arises about which you feel certain and confident in your beliefs, try to take a step back and listen first. Keeping an open mind is easier than reopening a closed one.
If that doesn't work, go outside for a hike, trail run, paddle, or climb. I feel pretty confident those are good ways to clear one's mind. But you can decide for yourself.
Read "How facts backfire" in The Boston Globe.