Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Another Perspective on Truth Rejection

The Times today published the hundred quarillionth think piece on why it's so hard to get people to drop provenly wrong assumptions (e.g. a large majority of Republicans still believe Trump's evidence-free wiretapping claims).

There's been much talk lately about confirmation bias, and other explanations for why otherwise reasonable people hold onto patently unreasonable notions. The problem is that the people who write these think pieces - who consider things like confirmation bias - are isolated from the people they're writing about. They are intellectuals who've enjoyed fancy educations, and they socialize strictly within that narrow tribe.

Having experience with a much wider range of people, the answer is very evident to me. We need to understand confirmation bias by considering the alternative. Yes, people absolutely do retreat into the comfort and security of their ideological "igloo", seeking out only opinions which soothe their preconceptions. But that's only half of the issue - and not the important half. Think of it this way:

If someone who's neither well-educated nor disciplined in their thinking suddenly strips away their "igloo" beliefs, opinions, and stances, where is that person left? The answer is nowhere. If you're not conditioned to think nimbly - to bridge and hop between various stances - you are left in a blank, larval position. It's a brain fart that never ends.

Thing is, people aren't real deep. If you peel back their most superficial layer - where they say and think the sorts of things they usually say and think, largely parroting their favorite TV pundit - you'll discover there's distressingly little remaining, aside from primal drives and fears. Most people are "faking it till they make it." There's no "there" there, just a cobbled-together set of entirely imitative thoughts and behaviors barely sufficient to create a seamless impression of intellectual autonomy.

We look upon the senile with deep pity, observing that they've tragically lost themselves! No, they haven't. They're still right there! They've just had that puny and rather useless veneer removed; they've lost their bluffing tools. When their superficial wrapper of presentation is lost - the bundle of canned, unexamined stock opinions and reactions - little remains.

One can be trained to maintain discipline in the gap between the striking down of one assumption and the building up of a replacement. It's a small trick, but one few of us develop. As a philosophy major, I was trained to feel comfortable amid this gap, but most of my friends never learned this agility. Strip away their core beliefs and assumptions - deprive them of the canned policy statements they trigger when topics arise - and they'll find themselves infantilized. And, really, who wants that?

To urge wariness of cognitive bias is to assume that people have a choice in their beliefs. People who talk about cognitive bias often do have such a choice (though they, too, will admit that they themselves frequently fall victim). But most of the population does not have a choice. It's not "this" or "that" idea; it's an "on" or "off".

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