Don’t Be So Certain

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Andy Sauer

Question: Is Philadelphia the capital of Pennsylvania? How certain are you?

Before you answer, consider that when Princeton and MIT researchers asked those questions for a 2017 study, 66 percent got it wrong and 85 percent of those people were certain they were right.

In other words, not only were they wrong, they were very wrong.

The 2020 election is shaping up to be the most divisive since the 1860 presidential race that sparked a Civil War. No matter who wins, there will be a significant number of unhappy Americans, including, possibly, members of your family sitting at the Thanksgiving table.

Why is it that among all the forums for discourse in our ever-expanding agora, so many choose the secular holiday dedicated to fellowship and gratitude to settle simmering political scores?

A 2018 Science paper found that Thanksgiving celebrations following the 2016 presidential election were cut short 30 to 50 minutes. The study found that if you were a resident from a “blue” area traveling to a “red” area (or vice-versa), you left early, and not because the Pittsburgh Steelers were up two touchdowns at the half. You left because the political heat got too hot to stick around for dessert.

Look, I get it, some people are emotionally invested in their political beliefs. That’s a pillar of a functioning democracy. Another pillar, as stated in the United States Constitution, is domestic tranquility, which starts at home. So, if you are tempted to give that family member who personifies all that you politically oppose a piece of your mind, you are figuratively violating the spirit of the Constitution. That’s so un-American — and on Thanksgiving, too!

A corollary finding of the study that asked the Philadelphia question stated that among the 33 percent who answered correctly, one third knew that most people would get it wrong. They knew that people would get it wrong because it was a tricky question. The study quantified a measure of wisdom among those surveyed, and a wise person knows it’s easy to be mistaken.

Unfortunately, not everything is empirically right or wrong. There are some issues that can’t be resolved during a 6 hour Thanksgiving celebration — such as the public policy ones we elect others to tackle. If you are 100 percent certain you can, you’re probably wrong, and you’re probably going to ruin the holiday.

And Philadelphia is not the capital of Pennsylvania; it’s Harrisburg. 

 1.  Nature, 26 Jan. 2017; Vol. 541, pp 532-535. 

 2. Science, 01 June 2018, Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp. 1020-1024  

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