All New Convictions

So my teacher handed me back my first draft. Didn’t go that well, I’ve drastically changed my essay (RIP to the 3 hours I just wasted).

More Economics fun later (our teacher hasn’t taught us anything and there’s a test on Monday) and a maths challenge, shaping up to be a fun weekend(!)

Anyway here’s the all-new essay. Will have to re-write some bits and add some stuff in later but nature calls (as in I’m going for a walk)

“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of the truth than lies.”

                                                                            Friedrich Nietzsche- Human, All Too Human

During the Iraq war the American Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfield, was convinced the war could be won using top-down bureaucracy and strategic calculations. He was possessed by strong beliefs, refusing to accept his own obvious mistakes. He refused to listen to his soldiers on the ground, preferring to silence or sideline them; his stubborn childishness lost countless lives- both military and civilian. Rumsfield refused to listen to others, rather deciding to block them out, and continue on with his catastrophically designed plan.

This is an extreme example of a man who carried convictions. Convictions, not in a judicial sense, but in a moral sense.

From the case of the Iraq war we have learnt that convictions are bad, but just what are they? The Oxford dictionary defines a conviction as:

“A firmly held belief or opinion”

Conviction are inherited vestiges, artifacts of our past to be discarded. Convictions save energy, to process both sides of an argument, to consider every new input is exhausting. In a harsh territory, with limited amounts of fuel and brain glucose, the human mind sought a simple way to quickly make judgements using the minimum amount of energy. Emil Cioran, a Romanian philosopher, once said: “We have convictions only if we have studied nothing thoroughly.” And that’s exactly what our distant Neanderthal ancestors did, nothing was thoroughly studied, but in the modern world with an abundance of everything man could desire, convictions are dangerous things which can produce disastrous results if left unchecked.

In place of convictions we should have an openness to new, disconfirming evidence. We should endeavour to discover the truth – whatever the most accurate answer to a question is. As opposed to convictions, truth is fluid and moving, it may not be consistent between people, at different moments in time, or even across cultures. For example when you consider what the most suitable diet for humans is, the truth shall be whatever diet enables us to perform at our best, physically and mentally; fruit may be part of one person’s optimum diet whilst for someone with a fructose intolerance it may result in certain death.

An experiment was conducted by two social psychologists- Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard. They selected a sample of college students who were shown sets of lines and asked to guess their length. Students were divided into three groups: some would write their estimates on paper before handing it in to the experimenter. A second group would write down their results on a etch-a-sketch like device and would erase their estimate before it was seen by anyone else. The last group would just keep their estimate in their head.

If we looks at the quote by Nietzsche he says that convictions are greater foes of the truth than lies. How does this relate to our experiment? All three groups originally wanted to discover the truth: the length of the line. The groups who handed in their estimates are convicted- they strongly believe in their guesses. Those who momentarily wrote theirs down are a little convicted: they have some strong feelings about their answers. The third group experience a lie – a false belief, not strongly held.When new disconfirming evidence was introduced to suggest that their initial estimates were false, the three groups responded very differently.

. The most convicted people are unchanged by this revelation of new evidence, those a little convicted become less likely to change their false beliefs, and lies are easily dispelled by the appearance of the truth.

And so we discover the danger of conviction, those whom it possesses shall become invulnerable to the effects of new evidence being presented to them, as in the case of Donald Rumsfield.

How can we remove our convictions? Nietzsche himself laments that “Man is very well defended against himself, against being reconnoitred and besieged by himself, he is usually able to perceive of himself only his outer walls. The actual fortress is inaccessible, even invisible to him, unless his friends and enemies play the traitor and conduct him in by a secret path.” He aptly describes the phenomenon present in humans which results in an inability to critique oneself despite overwhelming evidence. You may have experienced this before. Have you ever done something that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time of its undertaking, but in hindsight was obviously and completely wrong? In order to remove these dangerous beasts that lurk inside us we must be able to take in new evidence, to acknowledge input from all sources and ally ourselves with a search for accuracy.

Perhaps the most potent example of people with extremely strong convictions is terrorists, your Al Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram of the world. Their members are filled with conviction, they hold perhaps the strongest beliefs, prepared to decimate villages; prepared to kill, rape and maim; prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs. Whilst it is unlikely that you would ever follow that route, it stands to bear: what convictions do you have in your life? What beliefs and ideas do you hold sacrosanct?  Are these decisions affecting your life positively or negatively? After asking these questions a impetus must be put on the continual search for the truth and whatever is most accurate.


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