Prior to The Scientific Revolution and subsequent Enlightenment, most “Truth” derived from a higher power, custom, or superstition. The world was flat. Doctors didn’t need to wash their hands, and cats did the devil’s work. The Scientific Method dispelled those notions. We have benefited as a society from the progress that science and reason have enabled.
Science and reason, however, do not have a monopoly on “Truth.” Appeals to emotion often feel like truth, and it turns out that we, as humans, are pretty bad at telling the difference between objective truth and emotionally derived “truth.” Deciding what’s true based on how it makes us feel may work in a society of one but can cause chaos when these beliefs affect the larger society.
The 20th century was marked by two World Wars and scores of other conflicts. While war is horrible for individuals, it has a way of getting everyone on the same page to defeat an enemy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. was left without a unifying purpose. Additionally, the abolition of the fairness doctrine in 1987, which had required broadcasters to air contrasting views on controversial issues, freed radio and television stations to pick a side and only report news and opinions that they agreed with. Finally, the internet and social media stepped in and spawned countless sources of “truth” to choose from. The collision of all these factors has left us in the wilderness without a compass. It has made it possible for people to think that mass shootings are staged events by anti-gun groups and rioters storming the Capital were “normal tourists.”
Building consensus among Americans again will be difficult, but it is the only way forward. Consensus, however, cannot be achieved by one political party or ideology forcing its views on the opposition. For America to become whole again, we need to start listening to each other. We need to feel heard. People who support far left or right ideology and/or conspiracy theories believe their views are objectively true. Telling them they’re wrong elicits either hate or pity but not respect or agreement. The reasons we hold the views we do are usually buried deep in the emotional soup that makes us who we are. Only deep listening and understanding of each other’s positions have the potential to create shared truth. Fortunately, there is social science whose primary purpose is listening – market research.
Market researchers don’t take a Hippocratic Oath. But they do share a commitment to uncover accurate, reproducible, meaningful truths that can elevate the public discourse. Whether we’re moderating a focus group, writing a questionnaire or conducting one-on-one interviews, we’re not interested in what we already know. We do what we do to find out what others think so that their opinions get factored into public policy, product development and marketing communications.
Market research organizations working for the public good like The Pew Research Center can play a role in resetting the tone for public discourse by providing nonpartisan, nonadvocacy information. Private sector companies like ThinkNow also have a responsibility to produce unbiased, science-based data that help guide the public discourse towards solutions that benefit the common good. We produce reports on societal issues like racial bias in policing, attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccination, and corporate social responsibility because finding societal consensus on these issues benefits us as individuals, our families and the communities we live in.
Science Educator and host of the Veritasium YouTube channel, Derek Muller, states in a recent video that “in science, disagreements are not problems, they are an opportunity for everyone to learn something.” Well-executed market research may not directly change people's minds, but it can create opportunities to see the value respondents get from holding their opinions and increase the likelihood that we’ll find common ground. The threats that disagreement on basic facts create for our country are opening a dangerous societal rift. Citizens and corporate entities have a responsibility to do what they can to close the gap. It starts with listening, which begets connection. And connection creates solutions.