“Seeing is believing” is often misunderstood

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June 2007


The slogan of Missouri as the “show me” state caught my attention the other day. There are two legends attached to the slogan recorded on the Missouri Secretary of State’s website.  One of them involved a Missouri U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1903. He wanted proof for a statement a fellow Congressman made. the other was very different. Miners came from Colorado to assist the miners in Missouri. Since their methods were different, the Missouri miners naturally asked them to “show them” how to do it.

Related to the “show me” attitude of the Congressman is the phrase “I will believe it when I see it” and “Seeing is believing”.  All of these reflect a lack of trust by the person saying the phrase. It could be that the statement made is so unbelievable that the hearer doesn’t accept it or it could be a lack of trust in the other person.


            There is another element in these phrases that need a closer look. “Seeing is believing” is actually an inaccurate phrase. We believe someone because we trust them. We have faith in them that they are telling the truth. For example, if someone tells me it is raining outside, I may go outside to see for myself. In that case I have no reason to believe the person who told me because I know for myself. Believing is based on accepting someone else’s words as factual or as the truth.

We also say that “perception is reality”. Perception involves not only the physical senses but also our intellect and feelings. Of course, what we have been taught and what we have read and remembered influences our perception. Advertisers are big on creating perceptions that people are willing to accept and act upon.

            When we combine the phrase “seeing is Believing” and :perception is reality” we come to a dilemma. We tend to think that “seeing” something makes it real but we are too often accepting the “seeing” without question. This happens especially in groups that are bound together by codes, whether secret or public, creeds, and constitutions. People reinforce each other’s perception of reality. It also happens in a small group of friends or co-workers who talk about another person or their boss. This is especially damaging when the talking is to degrade the person.

            This myiopic view of reality is especially dangerous when it is practiced by our leaders. It is the only reason I can come up with that explains President George W. Bush’s continue dclinging to his policy on the war in Iraq. He still tells us his strategy is working when  it is pretty clear to most of the world that it has failed for several years.

            On the flip side of this phrase is one that is not as common. It says “believing is seeing”.  I learned  this in a religious setting. If I believe deeply enough in some theological truth, I will see that truth. What I believe will become reality for me. I thought that was fascinating idea. This is powerful in moving along life’s journey and achieving one’s goals.

             On the negative side of this saying is someone believing in something that is not based in reality. President George W. Bush provides us with another example.  He believed prior to going to war in Iraq that Saddam Hussein could be toppled easily and we could win Iraq over to a democracy quickly. War would  be paid for out of oil revenues in Iraq. Seeing the outcome as a result of his believing, he proceeded to take us into war. Unfortunately He still sees his victory despite the evidence to the contrary.  Believing in the outcome he wants lets him see that outcome as if it were based on facts.

“Believing is seeing” needs a dose of realism. Claims of fact need to be more carefully prepared so we don’t need to say “show me!” to our friends, co-workers, and leaders.