Identity And Evaluating Issues Rationally

09 Dec

groupthink level: 9999. Chance for rationality: 0.001%

(These people are probably not here for rational dialog)

Some things I’ve read over the past few days and my little thoughts about them.

First, I want to reiterate what I wrote about the qualities of good explanations. In my posts What Makes A Good Explanation (and the appendix-ish post to that one, Guessing The Pattern) and Science Doesn’t Trust You To Be A Bayesian, I listed five criteria that good explanations have. I’ll repost them here.

1) Mechanism. A good explanation explains more of the underlying mechanisms than bad explanations. If your faucet is leaking and you call a plumber over to fix it, the plumber will be able to explain the underlying mechanism behind what causes the faucet to leak. There’s no mechanism for positing god, other than “goddidit” or “sin”.

2) Testability. A good explanation lends itself to being testable. Your plumber will be able to reproduce the leak at command if he actually understands the underlying mechanism. And if the leak happens again and your plumber told you the underlying mechanism, you should be able to test his explanation and fix the leak yourself. God-belief is entirely untestable (well, it is, but it fails every single test).

3) Simplicity. Good explanations use fewer ad hoc claims — i.e. claims that are not testable and have no mechanism — to support itself. A plumber that does all of the above but then posits that the reason behind the leak is that you haven’t arranged the furniture in your house in a manner that resonates with the frequencies of the Crystals of Andraste is a worse explanation than one that leaves that out.

4) Precision. Good explanations exclude more possible evidence than bad explanations. Let’s say that you have two friends who collect marbles. One friend collects only black marbles while the other collects every single color marble he can get his hands on. If your plumbing problems started after both friends were over for a few hours, and a black marble was found in your pipes, it’s much more likely that your friend who only collects black marbles caused it than your friend who collects all marble colors; even though it’s known that both friends own black marbles. God-belief does not restrict the type of evidence would be seen as opposed to naturalism so god-belief would be analogous to the friend who collects every marble color imaginable. The more evidence god-belief allows, the less likely it is that it explains this one particular piece of evidence.

5) Background Knowledge. Good explanations make use of our background knowledge, or said another way, good explanations make valid analogies. So I wrote in my Why I’m not a Christian post:

Why are there four gospels instead of one? What was the historical situation that produced a fourfold gospel canon? Instead of using traffic accidents to describe religious history, we should use religion to explain religious history. Why is there, for example, one book of Joshua? Trick question; there isn’t just one book of Joshua, there are two. One, the Jewish version which is in the Christian Bible, and another one, the Samaritan version. So using religion as our explanatory example, we see why there are two books of Joshua: Religious sectarianism. Jews don’t consider Samaritans to be the true version of their religion and Samaritans don’t consider Jews to be the true version of their religion. If this explains why there is more than one book of Joshua, this probably also explains why there is more than one gospel. Religious sectarianism; Matthew wasn’t written to corroborate Mark, as the traffic accident explanation assumes, but was written to replace Mark. The same with every other gospel.

Here I used the analogy of Jewish/Samaritan sectarianism to explain why there are four gospels instead of one.

Now that we know the qualities that good explanations have, we have to point out the ways in which people handicap themselves from using these good explanations.

Sam Harris posted an interview he did with Peter Boghossian, the author of a book called A Manual for Creating Atheists. One of the points that Boghossian makes is that debates between believers and non-believers is usually pointless, because:

For too long we’ve misidentified the problem. We’ve conceptualized it in terms of conclusions people hold, not mechanisms of belief formation they use. I’m advocating that we reconceptualize the problem of faith, God, and religion (and virtually every other instance of insufficiently evidenced belief) in terms of epistemology—that is, in terms of how people come to know what they think they know. [my emphasis]

Next little ping for the influence behind this post is a piece by Jeff Schweitzer over at Huffington Post (h/t Jason Rosenhouse):

Oddly, many accept the link between autism and vaccinations with no proof, but when it comes to climate change, the demand for proof is never satisfied no matter how convincing such proof may be. Many accept the existence of ghosts with no evidence, but deny the reality of a changing climate with proof before their eyes. This differential deference to evidence is clear indicator that much of the American public lacks the tools to evaluate issues rationally. Without science, reality becomes just an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us inconvenient truths. In this frightening environment in which fiction becomes fact, the conclusions from years of careful research, scrutinized by competing scientists and published in peer reviewed journals now carry no more weight with the public than the random thoughts of a bloated pundit. Talking heads with no training now have the same authority as highly qualified experts. So global warming is dismissed as a liberal hoax in spite of a preponderance of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Climate and weather are mistakenly thought to be the same. So with every cold snap in winter we hear, “See, it snowed – I told you climate change was a joke.”

This leads me to a sort of meta good explanation criterion. To even begin using the tools of rationality correctly, or to even think to apply them, you should do your best to keep your identity as small as possible. At that link, Paul Graham argues against associating yourself with labels (e.g. “libertarian,” “feminist,” “gamer,” “American”) because labels constrain what you’ll let yourself believe, and this constraint usually happens subconsciously. This is why people can accept the link between vaccinations and autism on very flimsy evidence, or accept the very poor evidence for Creationism, or any other myriad contentious “teach the controversy” issues where one side has overwhelming support and the other has very little. It’s the identity that these people hold that is a stumbling block to overcome.

Worse yet, if some dark arts practitioner knows you have a strong identity with some cause, they can more easily manipulate you because of our hard-wiring for groupthink and using information we don’t even know we’re using to make decisions.

So the first step towards debiasing yourself is to keep your identity small. This would be a tough sell if you’re trying to convert a Christian though, since being a Christian is a large part of their identity. However, you could possibly get them to identify with some other identity that would lend itself more towards rationality. And, of course, like Boghossian said, you can also try examining epistemology itself, steering them towards the laws of thought.

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