Flying Elephants

Apologies in advance for the lame joke that follows. But there’s a lesson behind the lameness. I promise.

Under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein, a science teacher was teaching her 1st grade class about animals.

Student: “Miss, I was told that elephants fly.”

Teacher: “No, elephants don’t fly. Who’s the idiot that told you that?”

Student: “Saddam Hussain says they fly.”

Teacher: “Oh, well… they do fly, but not very high.”

Flying elephants are the opinions we hold because we don’t dare challenge the views of an authority figure. They are very common in religious and political debates.

You may have seen a person argue aggressively to prove a point, but when he realizes that his political or religious leadership hold a different view, he’ll adjust his own views to be more compatible with theirs, even if all the evidence he has conflicts with their conclusions.

You may strongly oppose capital punishment, but believe in exceptional cases when you find out your religion advocates it.

You may agree with a government policy, but back down when you realize your political party opposes it.

There are many reasons for why someone may believe in flying elephants. Fear, political interest and self-doubt are the most common.

And because elephants don’t fly, we have to rationalize the existence of flying elephants, or make them slightly more plausible to us and others. The don’t fly high is more believable than saying they soar like eagles.

To make sure you don’t end up believing in flying elephants, ask yourself: would my views about this issue change if I knew Important Figure X held an opposing view? Would I seek to reconcile the two views, or would I only consider the facts available to me?

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