Moving past our assumptions

If you could improve one thing in discussions between people with differing views, what would it be? I would encourage people (myself included!) to stop making assumptions about each other.
The thoughts here have been swirling in my mind for years, and it’s finally time to try to collect my ideas. I’m inspired to action after the recent Public Interfaces of Life Sciences event
at the National Academy of Sciences, When Science and Citizens Connect: Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms. The sessions helped me to somewhat solidify my thoughts, and if you were present or if you watched online and followed #NASinterface, much of this will be familiar.

by Chris Devers via Flickr.
Sabertooth tiger at the Boston Museum of Science by Chris Devers via Flickr.

We all make thousands of decisions daily. Most are small, some are large, a few could be life threatening. For some decisions, we have a few moments or more to choose. But when we are in a dangerous situation – do I need to jump away from that car speeding towards me? – we have to decide in a split second. And that’s a good thing. Our ancestors that took more time to decide were eaten by saber tooth tigers. Or trampled by mammoths. Or killed by a rival tribe.
We evolved to make split second decisions about people we encounter. These assumptions allow us to avoid investing too much brainpower in short encounters. Unfortunately, these instincts do not serve us well when we want to engage with people who are different from us. Stereotypes keep us from seeing each other as people.
So many conversations fail due to tribalism. “You are other, therefore I don’t trust you and I won’t engage with you.” Insults like shill are thrown around, but even when it’s not so obvious, the assumptions and stereotypes are lurking, preventing real conversations from happening.
We lump ideas even when it’s not appropriate to do so. If I say I’m a scientist, people’s minds fill with what they think I think, what they think I do, what they think I look like (the stereotype starts early). Assumptions prevent us from having a productive conversation. We can’t get past negative stereotypes if we’re not even aware we’re stereotyping.

So what can we do?
We can be aware of our natural tendencies to stereotype. We can actively work to keep an open mind when presented with ideas that are different from ours. Doing this requires a certain level of charity – we have to believe that most people have an honest intent to learn and to teach. No one has an evil agenda, we are all just people trying to do what we believe in. To use the old saying, we all put our pants on one leg at a time.
A great example of breaking down stereotypes is Humans of New York by photographer Brandon Stanton. It’s easy to make assumptions about the people in Brandon’s photographs based on their appearance. But he also includes a quote from each person that gives us a glimpse into their lives. The results can be powerful as we realize how wrong our assumptions can be.
While I believe the world would be a better place if we all strived to stop making assumptions about each other, I’m a realist and I know it’s unlikely. Still, I think there’s opportunity for real progress.
The default conversation on topics like biotechnology starts with a disagreement. What if people with differing views started a conversation with what they agree with and then started moving out into areas of disagreement? What if we identified values that we both hold dear? Would further conversations about the areas of disagreement be more fruitful?
Based on my experience, yes. An example: when I was in grad school, I facilitated some interfaith conversations. Long story short: there had been a long history of discordance, but starting with cordial conversation allowed us to slowly address areas of concern, resulting in a solution that everyone was comfortable with. Even better, some lovely friendships grew from our time together.
I for one would love to have some conversations like this around biotechnology, and I said as much to a few folks at the NAS event. How could this happen? We could start with an in person conversation (or video chat), then move to an agreed upon electronic method to make it easier to work around time constraints (could be email, private messages on Facebook, comments on a public forum post, etc). I’m just putting out ideas here.
If you could have meaningful engagement with someone you disagree with, who would it be? At the NAS event, Washington Post journalist Tamar Haspel said that she seeks out the smartest person she can find who she disagrees with. Who are those people for biotechnology?
Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge a reason why we don’t see much true engagement. Typically, people with different views just talk past each other. They want to teach but aren’t open to learning. Real engagement means being a little vulnerable. You might change someone’s mind but your own mind might be changed in the process. It’s a little scary to open yourself up to change like that. But it’s also liberating. Instead of clinging to one worldview, true engagement lets you change your opinions based on evidence. It’s a beautiful thing.


  1. Ok, I’ll start with mine. I think he’ll chuckle when he finds out. It was hard to decide to do it at first, because we had actually had some tussles ’round the tubes. Some of them here. But when I realized he wasn’t making the wild health claims and was trying to present a constructive conversation about organic farming, I warmed to the idea of having him float through my twitter feed.
    I still don’t always agree with him. But I think he’s a smart guy. @songberryfarm: Rob Wallbridge
    One other note about this: I often hear how we need to do X or Y to reach people and change their minds. And tone. Grrr. And touchy-feely-crap. To change my mind, you need to wrestle with me. To the floor. And that may not change my mind, but that’s how you get in–and then I evaluate whether it’s BS or not. I sometimes think these conversations are aiming at some idealized interactions, when that’s just not the case, nor will it be the right strategy for everyone.

  2. I agree. Rob is definitely one of the smartest people I know, period. And especially so amongst people I disagree with on some issues.
    It’s true that the friendly tone doesn’t work for everyone. But it works for me! Based on my interactions with him, I’d say it works for Rob as well.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a bit more… even if the friendly tone doesn’t work for everyone, I would think that starting out with potentially incorrect assumptions could be a problem regardless of how friendly one chooses to be. What do you think?

  4. Well, I typically start interactions with the assumption that people will appreciate facts and data. I’m not sure it would be better to assume they come in bad faith with not interest in those things.
    Unless they’ve fired first with something that already indicates otherwise.

  5. I think in the starting assumptions we tend to believe if a person doesn’t support our position on a given issue it’s because they don’t share our values.
    From the anti-biotechnology camp there’s a perspective that GMO proponents wouldn’t hold that position unless they are being paid, OR because they are anti-farmer, anti-environment and anti-democracy (so maybe ‘shill’ is a kind of backwards compliment?)
    I think on both sides of this issue we almost all care about farmers, environment and democracy. Finding the common values we share is the only way forward.

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