Intellect and Beliefs

A recent experience got me down and I thought maybe I’d write about it.  I am not sure what to conclude, but sometimes it feels good to just write things out.  A person who I considered somewhat of a friend or at least a good acquaintance from grad school reconnected with me at a conference last year.  He was a Ph.D. student while I was doing my Masters and he was very friendly and seemed to me very smart.  So when he friended me on Facebook I was a bit excited since he seemed like he would be a good person to get into discussions with and that he would post interesting things.   But as I started to see him pop up on my news feed he would often post things that seemed to me that he already believed an answer, but claimed he wanted to know what other people thought, but if you didn’t think what he thought he would still think he was right even if he wouldn’t explicitly say it.  He would comment on statuses that I posted if I criticized A then he would say, how can you criticize A when you don’t criticize B.  The simple answer being that sometimes I did complain about B but he didn’t see it, or I would complain about B if I knew about it, but also that I have a limited amount of things that I have the passion for fighting against and this is simply what I’ve chosen.  Over time I came to realize that he was pretty religious, was against gay marriage, and although more compassionate that perhaps some evangelicals, he certainly had no tolerance for a pro-choice point of view, though planned parenthood was evil, and that men are much more oppressed in our society than women.  And while I agree that inequality towards men is often overlooked in favor to women’s issues, for him the balance seemed to swing the other way and that we lived in a society that favored women.  We ended up arguing about most things and while he would complain about how everybody always argues using ad hominem attacks instead of discussing the issue he would frequently use language to me like “You really believe that?”, “Are you serious?” and other phrases that were clearly mocking what I felt to be true as so ridiculous that he couldn’t believe an educated person would think that way.  And to be honest I felt the same way, but would never debate like that (although I did finally get a bit snippy in retort after enough of those kinds of statements).  The final straw that led to me just unfriending him was over the Syria situation when I posted a status and talked about how we and the west have benefited so much from the cheap oil to run our economies from that region of the world and how, especially the UK and the US have actively tried to keep that area unstable to maintain control of the oil that to not help the refugees was hypocritical.  He responded by saying we didn’t cause fundamentalism, we didn’t cause ISIS, and a bunch of other things.  I thought about responding, because there is a lot of evidence that we did cause ISIS, and that by keeping the area impoverished and without a stable governments, without the ability to nationalize their own oil reserves we have kept those countries in a state of poverty and fundamentalism tends to flourish in such regions.

But what I really want to talk about is how such a person really made me doubt myself.  I have experienced it before where someone whose intellect you admire (and maybe this guy simply changed over the years) and then all of a sudden starts making you feel like an idiot and you really believe them.  It makes you doubt yourself down to the very core and its troubling, and it hurts when someone you respected as a person belittles you.  But then I had to start questioning that feeling of doubt and hurt.  Knowing that we rationalize our beliefs and that if someone tries to challenge them in a very serious way we can often react defensively to not have such beliefs destroyed.  This person has, like me, a Ph.D. in meteorology and it’s applied math and physics and is no cake walk.  Was he the objective scientist and I was biased and belief based?  I don’t think that I am, but what if I simply believe that I am the type of person who is willing to change their mind about things given evidence, but really I’m not.  Ultimately it seems that the type of person I see myself as, might also be a belief.
Then I started to worry more that I was insulating myself intellectually.  Over the past 5 years I have had less tolerance to engage with people who didn’t to at least some degree share my worldview or who had a worldview that I respected even if it wasn’t my own.  It seems to me that such engagements had little value but to drain my energy.  Either the debate was one I have had many times before and was simply repetitive, or the possibility exists that I do not have the language skills to effectively get my points across because the exchange seems to go nowhere.  My intellect however would recognize common logical fallacies that they would use and there was only so much I could take before I just decided that this person wasn’t someone I should continue engaging with.  And I’ve started to feel as I age that life is too short now to surround myself with people who only anger and frustrate me and simply surround myself with those who give me positive energy.  But as a person who wants to grow intellectually and not hide from perspectives different from my own, how do I do that and still maintain my sanity in a world that seems fraught with so many people who don’t seem to think critically?  And is my desire to think critically fading as I age where my focus seems to be shifting to seek comfort and joy over the type of adversity that helps the intellect grow?

Had this former fellow student of mine been someone I did not know I probably would have shut them out awhile ago as I recognized their arguments were never steeped in evidence, but simply asserted with strong language.  Followed by an expectation for you to give evidence if you disagreed even though none was offered to you in the first place.  Such tactics are the hallmark of belief based thinking.  When we have attachments to people and when we respect their intellect it’s hard not to take them seriously.  The words sink deeper into you and shake you up regardless of their truth.  And I do have friends that disagree with me on big issues, but when we discuss them the language feels much more like mutual respect for each other, and so maybe in the this guy was just a giant asshole, and only my admiration of him from the past blinded me from seeing it for too long.  I’d like to believe that I stuck it out longer than I normally would have and gave him the benefit of the doubt.  I guess though, part of me still stuck on the idea that perhaps I’m protecting my worldview because I don’t want to change it.

Of course when I analyze my worldview I don’t see it as a bad one.  But I’m sure all people feel that way.  I do continue to read and learn, even if it is something that I don’t agree with.  In the end I guess I’ve decided that however I decide to keep my social circle, I am at the very least a person who looks to reduce the harm and suffering of my fellow humans in this world and I only hope that this drive continues to help me be the person I want to be.  And maybe it’s most important to recognize that the intellect does not always dictate beliefs and that these come from more of an emotional place.  And so maybe doing things that keep me emotionally healthy is just as important as that which keeps my intellect healthy.

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Correlation vs. Causation

I decided to write a response to one of the many excellent posts written by a fellow blogger.  It became long enough and I thought a worthy enough to be a blog post of it’s own!  If you are interested in the idea of correlation vs. causation you can read his blog here first.

In your last paragraph I was reminded of Dawkins’ argument in the God Delusion when he is talking about miracles.  Since miracles are by definition unique and rare events there is no way to really disprove a divine explanation.  This is of course if the same thing doesn’t keep happening again and again, which if it does, you really don’t have a miracle on your hands anymore.  He uses the example of the one documented miracle in Catholicism in which some 100,000 witness near Fatima, Portugal reported the Sun doing some odd things including zigzagging towards them and crashing to the Earth.  Dawkins argues that in looking for a natural explanation for the event, all of them, including the possibility that all 100,000 people are lying are actually more probable than the laws of physics being thwarted for a group of people in one part of the world (no other people reported seeing anything other than those at the event).  So I think that you are very correct that we the “correlation does not mean causation” argument does not negate a particular postulation for why a correlation exists.   However I would go a step further and say that it is not even an argument in of itself.

It is of course the responsibility of anybody who poses a correlation to provide a reason why such a correlation exists.  Provided you have done that, then the “correlation does not mean causation” response isn’t a logical argument in response to yours.  The person on the other side of the debate must either address why your reasons why are not valid, or must present something else that correlates better and why their reason for x causing y is more probable.  So I think you might be giving a little too much weight to the argument in how much it actually negates a correlation between two variables.

In many areas in science we can say why pretty easily because there are usually physical laws that explain why quite easily, and those things are testable and repeatable.  In social science this may be harder to do.  Especially since it is not always clear what all the variables are.  For instance it is clear that there is a positive correlation between gun deaths (accidental, homicide, and suicides) the amount of guns per capita in a population.  There are plenty of psychological factors of course to consider here on why would a person own a gun or why would someone choose to kill themselves?  There are practical questions like how to we get people to be more responsible about locking up their guns so their kid doesn’t pick it up, how to we make sure that more people remember to store their guns unloaded, how can make guns safer from accidental misfires, and how can we make sure that people who buy again are well trained in how to use it? There are likely even bigger questions like how does income disparity lead to increased crime in general? What are other ways that don’t involve firearms where people can be made safe?  All of these and plenty more are likely part and parcel of explaining gun violence, but that doesn’t change the fact that reducing access to guns would result a lowering of the number of gun deaths.  So making some laws that create a national gun registry, that do better background checks, and limit the type of weapon the general public could buy, would make some sense even though it clearly won’t eliminate gun deaths completely.  If by a counter-argument someone says “correlation does not mean causation” they haven’t actually addressed the argument being made.  They actually have to find an example with all other variables relatively constant between the U.S. and that country, except gun control laws, and show that an opposite correlation exists. i.e. Restrictive gun control laws and increased gun deaths, or high gun ownership and low gun deaths.  And that would be for a country with similar economies, democratic, with a high standard of living, and that doesn’t have mandatory military service in which the high amount of gun ownership isn’t because they keep their piece given to them in the military (Switzerland the example always used here).

So in the classic humorous example that has been around for awhile is that graph between global temperature and the number of pirates.  I can’t just show that graph and say see…look how the number of pirates is impacting global temperature?  I actually have to provide a reason why pirates might impact temperatures.  I can say there is less plundering and razing of towns so the urban heat island effect has increased thus raising global

From Wikipedia.org

temperatures.  Obviously this is a silly argument, but a response of “correlation and causation are different”, while a true statement, does not negate my assertion.  There are many ways to disprove my assertion but pointing out a correlation is not causation does not. Because the truth is, “correlation does not always mean causation” so one has to go past this statement to further argue one’s point.  This is true for many arguments that contain logical fallacies.  You could take the classic argument used against gay marriage.  Well if we let gays marry, pretty soon we’ll have to let people marry their pets.  Well this is of course the slippery slope logical fallacy.  Slippery slope arguments may not be incorrect, but are very often wrong.  So it’s not enough for me to counter your slippery slope argument with “Hey that’s a slippery slope argument”.  I would be quite wrong to think the argument was done, because they could actually be right.  Some events do lead to a chain of events that are far from where things started.  To win the argument I would actually need to argue that there has never been a push for legislation to marry a pet, that if anybody has tried this they were a crazy person, that this is not a psychological drive of human beings as a species, etc.  I could also point to many other marriage related laws or other laws that have not led to a hyperbolic slippery slope situations.

To say that “correlation and causation are not necessarily the same thing” is actually a Straw Man argument (which is fallacious) because the argument assumes a position that you have not taken in the argument.  Correlating variables is a valid method for discovering relationships, and by presenting that correlation, one’s assertion is not that correlation is a valid method, but rather that two variables are related to each other.  And to say two things are correlated doesn’t imply that this is the only important variable, or that even it is the primary or secondary cause of a particular event.  One has simply said there is a relationship and a counter argument must challenge the relationship.  A correlation must be presented along with some sound reasons why there is a correlation, and an argument in response must challenge those reasons.  The art of argumentation isn’t easy and few people can actually argue well. 🙂

Game, Set, and Match

“Nothing in the world is harder than convincing someone of an unfamiliar truth”  – said by Kvothe in A Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Every person on the planet can agree on one thing.  The world could be a better place.  For those of us who strive towards equality, wish to reduce human suffering, and care about the planet as a whole the world looks fairly messed up.  Some people  ignore the problems.  That’s a bit selfish perhaps, but the weight can be a lot to bear and we all have our limits, so who am I to judge?  Some people are definitely selfish because instead of trying to fight it they simply become part of the problem.  Trying to get a share of what they think is theirs.  If the world is going to be unfair then why not do whatever it takes to be a winner and not a loser?  In recognizing that we are a cooperative species, to me the fight to making the world more fair is always worth it even if the goal is never achieved and feels like a continual uphill battle that sometimes gets steeper and not gentler.  As a whole, we are simply better when we are working together to solve problems.  Problems do arise, even ones not of our own making.  Even ones that do arise because of our own making we can’t always blame ourselves, because hey nobody’s perfect and hindsight is 20/20 (at least we hope).

In this age of information and social media the amount of people that can be in contact with each other has expanded exponentially.  As a result we see the vast array of opinions out there.  Some people are clearly uneducated about the subject but seem very excited that they can say something and somebody will see it.  Some people make comments simply to anger people and cause an outrage or what is known as being a troll and this has been a topic of much discussion lately.  How we deal with people who make inflammatory comments or are very hostile towards the author of an article or another person commenting on a thread.  Interestingly inflammatory comments that support the view of a particular piece is not seen as negative, only the person who disagrees.  I would argue that if you read an article that say expresses a Democratic point of view and in the comments you say something like “Just another example that Republicans are pieces of shit” then you are just as bad as anybody you consider a troll in the ensuing comments.

Spurned by a few incidents in the recent past and also by this excellently written article about making better arguments in politics I wanted to express my thoughts about how we might be able to engage people we disagree with in a more meaningful way.  The quote that starts this article is something that just struck me as the wisest words ever written when I read them and speaks to why if you like to debate and engage people with different points of view, why you are rarely successful.

Picture from Amazon.com

The article that I linked in the previous paragraph talks about biases we have.  For a very comprehensive look at our biases and beliefs I also strongly recommend reading the The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer.  It’s a brilliantly constructed book and very educational.  His argument is that we believe first and rationalize later.  I think your immediate intuition sees the truth in that.  Right now you might think well that’s what the other guy does, but if you are really honest with yourself you’d realize you do it too.  It takes a lot of discipline to let your reasoning side take over, and suppress that “gut feeling” to believe what you think is right.  As a result of this tendency to believe first and then rationalize those beliefs, when absorbing a new piece of information we tend to see it in a light that supports our beliefs rather than negate them.

Another bias we have that is the main part of the article is the self-serving bias.  The idea that in order to protect our self-esteem or sense of self-worth we must reject ideas that make us feel like we are wrong about something.  As the article says is we are wrong about one thing, then what else might we be wrong about, and then how do we deal with the idea of not being as smart as we think we are?  This is why I think one of the most important human virtues we can have is humility as I wrote about in a previous blog post.  Being wrong about something is a tough thing to deal with.  What is strange to me is that I think we can all agree that we’ve experienced being wrong before.  If you reflect on your life you’ll realize you actually got through it and you are actually okay.  Nevertheless we still tend to not deal to well with it in the moment.  Just like dealing with addiction, admitting you have a problem is the first step. 🙂  In this case, don’t worry because everybody has these biases and so everybody has this problem.  So I would like to provide what I think is a helpful guide to getting people to see things from your point of view.  And if right now you are asking, “Why should I listen to this guy?”  Well because quit frankly I’m right dammit! 😉

Be the person you would like others to be

Painting by Miles Halpern

Don’t you hate it when someone is not sympathetic to you and the oppression or struggles you face?  It makes you angry, it makes you not really like that person, and it makes you frustrated.  So what should your response be?  Most people seem to respond by being equally dismissive to others and their problems.  What if, however, you tried to remain that sympathetic and compassionate person you hoped the other person would be?  What if you said “I’m sorry you can’t understand how the incident made me feel, and even though I don’t know why you can’t be sympathetic to my struggles I sincerely hope that you never have to feel the way that I do right now.”  If someone cannot demonstrate compassion for your genuine reason for being angry about something or being hurt about something, being afraid of something, or whatever is causing a negative emotion that is all the more reason to give sympathy towards them in return.  Give them an example of what sympathy and empathy is all about.  Maybe nobody has ever showed them any and so they literally don’t know it’s value or what it’s about.  Maybe they had an ultra-chauvinistic father who never allowed them to show their feelings and were always told “Buck up and be a man you pussy!”  Imagine growing up with that all your life.  How much compassion would you have as an adult?  Gandhi said “Be the change you’d like to see in the world” and so if you feel your worldview is superior in making this world a better place, make sure that you are genuinely being the type of person you would like to see in others.

Also haven’t you ever had someone in your life who you really respected because they seemed like a good person.  You admired them.  You wanted to be like them.  You are more likely to cause a change in someone’s behavior by being a positive role model rather than someone who berates them for their ideas.  Why would anyone want to be like someone who just belittles people for their beliefs even when those beliefs are misguided.  Because to the person with those beliefs…well they believe it and thus think they are not misguided.

Make sure you have a good sense of self-worth

What’s this you say?  I thought this was the problem.  The article I linked actually talks about using daily affirmations to enhance your self-worth as being important in being able to face things that you might be wrong about so that there is no net loss in self-worth.  I think the author glosses over this to almost make it seem like a trick you are using rather than genuinely building your self-worth.  If you have low self-esteem it can be hard to debate or argue with someone in a constructive manner.  Obviously if you barely value yourself, the few things that you do value about yourself, you will be even more afraid of losing.  Building a true sense of self-worth takes time and experience.  It takes an admission of your faults and the continual persistence to improve.  It takes trying not make the same mistake twice, even if it sometimes happen.  Practice humility, forgiveness, and spend time just observing and reflecting on those experiences before forming an opinion.  Then learn about how other people experience the world and try to pick out the commonalities in your experience rather than focusing on the differences.  Your self-worth will grow actually when you recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around you.  Self-worth and self-centered are completely different but often get tangled.

Make sure you respect the self-worth of others

From hellobeautiful.com

I’m not asking you to admit you’re wrong or say somebody else is right, but when you are humble and are willing to at least to consider the possibility that you might be at least partially wrong about your point of view, you will find that you move to a place of being inquisitive about where someone else’s point of view comes from.  This will lead you to ask more questions to see where that person is coming from.  It will help you get to know the person and that person now knows that you are interested in who they are, and are simply not just interested in making them feel like they are wrong.  After all who wants to listen and take seriously someone who is only interested in pointing out how right they are, and how wrong you are?  It doesn’t matter if you are actually right and that the other person is actually wrong.  People have a lot of wrong ideas not because they choose to be wrong but because they have been conditioned in their environment to see the world differently.

Recently there has been a lot of arguments in social media about racism and reverse racism.  What if someone is trying to advance the position that reverse-racism of blacks against whites is just as big of a problem as racism against black people?  You can respond angrily, dismissively, you can throw out all sorts of data and you’ll probably notice this makes no difference whatsoever.  What if instead you said “Hmmm…you know that hasn’t been my experience.  Can you tell me what makes you think that way?  Have you experienced racism as a white person?  If you have I am really sorry about that because I have personally experienced racism as well.  Maybe we could share our experiences.  Because I know how much it hurts when someone assumes something about you based on the color of your skin.”  In reality of that interaction with someone it doesn’t matter that as a whole blacks are not treated as equals and that white people do enjoy a position of privilege in society, because that person has simply been shaped by their experiences and their interpretation of those experience.  Sometimes being able to see the big picture is also a position of privilege.  It probably means you have had greater opportunities for education and slightly better income so that you have leisure time to explore a topic in more detail.  Perhaps parents who were interested in different points of view, valued diversity, etc.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have that.  Showing respect for a person and their experiences that led them to what they think is true today, is a better way to be heard by that person.  You might just tear down a few walls and find that you might not be that different at all.

Be willing to walk away

This seems pretty obvious.  A common piece of advice told by parents who want their child to not get into a physical fight.  It is true for fighting with words as well.  If you are hitting a wall with someone and trying harder each time, you will probably find that the wall is only getting thicker and harder.  You probably don’t even notice the tone of your dialogue change, but in my observation not just in other arguments I have watched, but when I’ve had a chance to look back at my own words I realized that the angrier I get, my logic gets worse and my tone becomes more inflammatory.  Being a more experienced teacher I now have more experience in just watching people who have trouble learning.  Being a good teacher is to find alternative ways in which someone can learn what you are saying and all those ways require patience and understanding.  So I think I am better at it that I was, but one can always improve.

More importantly of course getting angry, frustrated, and stressed because someone simply doesn’t “get it” is no way to live life.  It could be your inability to argue effectively, it could be your tone, and of course it could be completely and absolutely all their fault.  So what?  Maybe it is possible that they will simply never, ever agree with you so why waste your time and energy?  If you really feel convinced that you could make your argument better, then don’t keep arguing maniacally, but step away and reflect.  Pay less attention to the content of what you have said, but how you have said it.  Look less at the content of what they have said but try to pay attention to the experiences that may have led them to that line of thinking and try starting again.  The point is, if you feel yourself starting to get angry or frustrated, you should probably just stop.  Because I guarantee that you will not only not win, but you will have to deal with an emotion that can quite honestly ruin your day.

True change takes time

Photo by Alan Cleaver via flickr

Plenty of times in my life I have thought I have made no impact and sometimes weeks, months, or years later I see someone who has changed their position on something that they seemed so sure of in the past.  Most teachers will have stories of students who they couldn’t  motivate, were often at odds with, and felt sadness that they weren’t able to “reach” that student.  Only to get an e-mail a year later with an apology, or a revelation from that student, saying that they realize now how their behavior was wrong and that they appreciate you for trying to motivate them and believing in them.  Many times in the moment I have felt frustrated at being told I’m wrong about something.  I might even argue my case further even if I am out of additional legs to stand on.  Then I sit and think.  I read some more.  Realize that maybe something I read, or something somebody told me was wrong.  Or perhaps I realized that I hadn’t looked at a previous experience in the right way, and that I hadn’t perhaps learned all the lessons from it I should have.  Nowadays I try to let that person know that they were right about something and I was wrong.  In the past when my own self-esteem wasn’t strong I was often too embarrassed to admit it to that person.  That doesn’t mean that person didn’t have an effect on me.  So it may seem like wishful thinking, but don’t ever think your exchange didn’t have any value at all.  Because you never know.  It may happen years down the road, or the change may be ever so slight but because it caused someone to look in a different direction, it sets them down a path of learning they never would have gone down before without you.

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As a final thought I want to make it clear that I don’t pretend any of this is easy, or that I am the awesome person that I describe here.  I HATE being wrong and in my experience most other people do too.   Perhaps its because I have gotten older that the accumulation of things I have been wrong about has added up to such a proportion that it has humbled me.  I don’t know.  What we consider right and wrong however is a product of many things.  A function of space and time. Perhaps instead of thinking of yourself as being wrong about something, think of it as “Maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about something.  So maybe I’m not wrong, just not as right as I could be.” 🙂  Play nice and remember it’s a big sandbox.  There is room for a lot more people in it than you think. 🙂