How do we know something is true? Sometimes we believe things with such unwavering conviction we don’t stop to question our opinions, even when they are wrong. It’s confronting to find out you are mistaken when you have clung to some certainty. I am sure this has happened many times in my life, but the one that stands out most vividly in my mind happened when I was a child.
From an early age until I was about nine or ten I believed that the stars made a noise as night fell. They began to twinkle. For those of you who suffer from Tinnitus it sounded like a ringing in the ears or that was the best description I knew. Every evening the stars twinkled with ear ringing certainty. There was no doubt in my mind about the fact that stars sparkled with sound, and because there was no doubt, I never questioned my faith or tested my assumption. Let me explain how my daft idea became my reality.
We have all heard the rhyme twinkle twinkle little star, right? As a small child of perhaps four or five, every evening I observed stars as they popped into existence. As each little pin prick made its nightly debut in the highlands of Africa so too would the crickets begin their evening chorus. The association of vision and sound along with the word twinkle is what I assumed was the noise of stars twinkling. I had no idea it was an insect.
When background noise like that is identified and labelled we tend not to pay it any attention, and it fades into a background pattern of conviction. As a small child, I heard the sound, observed the stars, joined the dots and accepted my hypothesis was fact, after which I didn’t think about it further.
One day when I was about nine or ten my friend and I were hanging around my Mum in the kitchen while she was making dinner.
My friend said, ‘my biology teacher said crickets make a noise by rubbing their wings together. She’s wrong isn’t she? It’s because they rub their legs together.’
Mum said ‘no she’s right. Crickets rub their wings and grasshoppers rub their legs.’
I joined in saying, ‘but rubbing their wings wouldn’t make a noise, wings are too soft.’
‘They make a very big noise when there’re lots of them,’ my mother said.
I thought about that for a minute remembering my Mum’s frantic search for the solitary cricket in the sitting room a few weeks before. It was loud, but I didn’t recall ever hearing a multitude of crickets chorusing.
‘I would like to hear that,’ I said.
Mum looked at me strangely for a moment and then said, ‘you hear it every evening.’
‘What? No I don’t. I’ve never heard lots of crickets making a noise together before. I’ve only ever heard one, like the one last week we found in the sitting room.’
They sing every evening at dusk.’ Mum was still looking at me as if she thought she was missing something.
I lapsed into silence not wanting to display my ignorance, determined to listen at dusk to these crickets that I had supposedly missed every evening of my life.
As it turned out something distracted me and I forgot all about the cricket song at dusk for a few weeks, until one evening walking home from Sunday evening benediction I remembered and said, ‘hey Mum, remember you said that crickets sing at dusk.’
‘Yes,’ she said
‘Well, where are they?’ I asked.
‘Listen,’ she said, ‘they are signing now.’
I listened but I could hear nothing. ‘I can’t hear anything except the stars twinkling,’ I said.
‘The what?’ Her look of surprise spoke volumes and I cringed with embarrassment.
‘The….um nothing.’ I realised then how stupid I had been. ‘I hadn’t thought and just didn’t know that noise was crickets.’
‘What did you think it was?’ Mum looked at me curiously.
‘Don’t know,’ I muttered feeling like a dunce, and wondering how I had never questioned that noise since first deciding it was stars. I had just made the assumption. I wasn’t going to let on how stupid I was and changed the subject. My clever mother saw through my fudging and looked thoughtful but said nothing.
Studying science tends to make you question every one of your own beliefs as well as those that others hand to you as facts. That is a good thing because quite often you find your beliefs have been wrong all along. It was a shock to me to discover crickets make the same noise as I thought were stars twinkling. It was also a dent to my ego, as embarrassed I realised how silly my long held belief was.
I had an excuse I was a child, but we adults do it too. We make assumptions particularly about people. We create stereotypes for groups of people, and categorise them according to a label. When our beliefs are challenged we can go into denial, clinging harder to what we believe.
We do this because we feel foolish as I did. Or we can do it from fear or just because we do not believe our assumption can be wrong. In the worst case, false beliefs or stereotypes about people become prejudice or one of the many isms our society loves to condemn, racism, sexism and so on.
Sometimes such strongly held and unquestioned beliefs intrude on our social harmony. We formulate a belief that someone is doing something we don’t like, don’t approve of, or simply expect they are attempting something of which they are incapable. Once our conviction about another person is established, we tend to see all that person’s behaviour accordingly, just as I saw the behaviour of stars twinkling through the atmosphere as proof they made an ear ringing noise.
There are scores of research studies that show that when we place a label on someone we tend to judge their behaviour according to that label. So when we label someone from a certain socio economic strata it may determine how we perceive their intelligence, and when we label people by race, religion or ethnicity it may cause us to make false judgements about the respectability of their behaviour. The same applies to our judgements about people with a disability or those who are aged. We may judge their ability to carry out some act accordingly.
When we make an assumption it doesn’t take a moment to question it. If we care we can stop and question our beliefs, perhaps try on an alternative proposition or seeks facts to disprove a particular point of view, rather than clinging to our belief blindly without supporting evidence. For in doing so we may not only misjudge our fellow men, women and children but we can also do them untold harm.
So what are your dearly held beliefs and how might you challenge them?