It Feels True to Us: Belief Formation, Political Polarization, and Controversy

Sarah Stitzlein,University of Cincinnati; Liat Ariel, The Hebrew University;   Amy Shuffelton, Loyola University Chicago

Truth has taken on a weird importance in our post-truth and politically polarized world today. Although many philosophers have long since given up Enlightenment projects aimed at objective, correspondence theories of truth, most acknowledge that truth still matters for how we form our beliefs and the facts they rely upon. Truth affectively shapes our experiences—we feel that particular views are more true than others, in part based on whether or not they resonate with our lived experiences. Truth especially matters in our political communities where we argue over policies and practices that directly impact the lives and well-being of citizens. And yet, even as we must sift through competing worldviews and empirical evidence, research in psychology and cognitive science reveals that we aren’t particularly good at doing so. 

This symposium starts with this difficult position of truth, seeking to better understand its role today, especially in educational contexts where students are expected to learn factual content as well as skills for discerning what is true. It then considers how truth is functioning within populism to spur polarization and how students use their lived experience to assess truth. Finally, it considers a particularly charged example, school policies about sex and gender, to examine how knowledge and truth are wielded. In light of these considerations, we ask: What, then, are citizens to do to ensure that their beliefs and decision-making are well-founded? We offer some educational suggestions for how to live with struggles around truth and how we might foster truth-seeking and truth-telling within politically polarized, populist contexts.