In the summer of 2000, I was on the island of St. Kitts teaching in an international doctoral program. I prepared the students for their thesis projects by introducing them to the methodology of qualitative research. Qualitative research differs from more traditional quantitative research in several ways. But the most fundamental difference is how they perceive the truth.

While quantitative research postulates that there is truth to be discovered through carefully designed scientific measures, qualitative research takes the approach that truth is understood from different angles and exists in the eye of the beholder. The task of the qualitative researcher is to discover the richness of this truth, the multiple perspectives that nourish it, and to present it to the reader in all its complexity. It is therefore the researcher’s responsibility to disclose existing biases so that readers can also take them into account in their understanding of the issue.

One of the useful tools of qualitative research is interviewing “informants” or people knowledgeable about the topic. There is a caveat, however, for the researcher. This caution applies to all research, but it can be particularly problematic when the researcher interacts so personally with the subject. To teach both technique and caution, I offered the students an exercise: over the next two days, interview four residents born in the land of St. Kitts and ask them the following question: “What is it like? life in St. Kitts? »Write everything they say as accurately as possible. Read all of the answers and see if there are any themes or similarities. Group them according to the themes and put them back.

I took the students’ reports, found similar themes among them, and prepared a sheet with random quotes from their island “informants”. The next class I handed over a copy of the compiled result. Students now had to work in groups to prepare an article on St. Kitts, answering the research question.

The groups were now ready to present their results. A group of all the women went first. They read a paragraph that could have been used as a travel promotion for the island. They were talking about the glorious sunsets, the majestic volcanoes, the miles of pristine beaches, the friendly people.

When they were done, a student raised his hand.

“Did you give everyone the same data to process? ”

I answered in the affirmative but I could see he didn’t believe me. I asked the reader of the island’s travel journal to give him his sheet. He glanced up and then spoke again.

“Well, then our group has to go through next. And he got up to read.

The paragraph he read came straight from the same datasheet as the previous group. But his story paints the portrait of an island in crisis: drug addiction, AIDS and poverty. The two versions couldn’t have been more different. The hour has ended and more discussions would follow in subsequent classes about how the very questions we ask and the answers we arrive at are deeply influenced by who we are and what we already believe.

I have often thought about this class and the lessons it taught. And I remember these lessons every time I watch the news. It is a cliché to say that we live in two Americas. But I remember this every time I read a missive from a member of my family who lives in the America opposite to mine.

I see that we are fueled by two sets of beliefs and educated by two separate information streams. We know the history of the Civil War and how it divided families, pitted brother against brother. We thought it was behind us until then. The many strata of American society, economic differences, ethnic wealth, historical and social divisions have only two choices at the ballot box. It makes us ally on one side or the other, even though we have feelings somewhere in between.

And once we’ve made our choices, we stand through each other’s fence, advancing like parallel lines, which by definition can never meet.

“No amount of sightings of white swans can infer that all swans are white, but sighting a single black swan is sufficient to disprove this conclusion.”

– David Hume

This simple metaphor, expressed in the 18th century by Hume, the Scottish philosopher and empiricist, paved the way for the scientific principle of “falsifiability”, promoted in the 20th century by Sir Karl Popper, philosopher of science. (Falsifiability “is the assertion that for a hypothesis to be credible, it must be inherently refutable before it can be accepted as a scientific hypothesis or theory,” as explained by Martyn Shuttleworth and Lyndsay T. Wilson on Falsifiability says nothing about the inherent validity or correctness of an argument. It is only the minimum trait required for a claim to be considered scientific.)

The problem with human nature is that in our efforts to make sense of our world, we are driven to only look for more white swans. Worse yet, if we happen to stumble upon a black, we have a myriad of tools to explain it or simply dismiss it.

The riddle of the black swan is the basis of our current dilemma.

There is one thing we all agree with: we are at a turning point in our history. We see ourselves on the verge of losing our country if the other side wins. But what does losing our country mean? The elements of our America whose fading we deplore are as different from each other as the policies we offer as solutions.

Where some once saw a smart leader obsessed with himself and unable to perform the basic tasks of his job, others saw a disruptive hero and defender of an America they feared would slip away.

Where some now see a progressive and competent restorer of the civil order, others see a septuagenarian, senile and weak.

While some see masks and vaccinations as simple keys to a return to normal social and economic life, others see them as a questioning of individual freedom and the act of an authoritarian regime.

Where some see the dismantling of the safeguards of democracy, others see the destruction of a malicious “deep state”.

And finally, where some see repeated evidence of validity in a heavily-investigated election, others persist in searching for the elusive black swan.

The obstruction of the current legislative agenda – whether to oppose measures to end the pandemic or to ignore pressing economic and social needs – is it an attempt to scuttle the success of the other side rather than the real fear of an impending socialist state? Or is it a valiant bulwark against the fall of a free society? Is the adoption of new electoral restrictions protecting the sanctity of the vote, or is it the silence of the voices that is disproportionately hampered by these restrictions?

How do we deal with this ingrained division? In the past, the winner of an election had to adopt policies to try until the majority wanted a change of course. It required the late art of compromise. In this zero sum game, taking less than you want to get something you need means you lose. And not getting anything you want until the other side gets nothing either, that’s a win. Arguing points of logic simply gives each of us the chance to show off our white swans. If only we could stop counting swans and turn our attention to solving the problems of the day. Would that sound like a victory for all of us?

Nicole Saginor lives in Cornwall.