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Friday 11 December 2015

Uncompromising Men

Or : How rational thinking won't stop you from being stupid

Uncompromising men are easy to admire. He has courage; so does a dog. But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble.
It's unfortunate that this line is found in a) a Mel Gibson film and b) is said by a villain, because it's true. People naturally prefer clarity to uncertainty. We like to divide the world into black and white, right and wrong. This is the truth, that is just stupid. If you believe that, you must be an idiot.

That of course is why Braveheart is a popular film - and the same goes for Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, etc. The goodies are goodies and the baddies are baddies, with all the moral ambiguity of a bowl of custard. And even though there are plenty of very successful stories with much greater moral complexity, the simplistic version never really loses its appeal.

But in the real world anyone with an ounce of sense knows, deep down, that it's much more complicated than that. Granny isn't an evil person because she's a little bit racist*. The high school physics teacher isn't certifiable because he sympathises with Moon landing conspiracy theorists*. And the local shopkeeper isn't a nutter because he thinks global warming is all some kind of hoax to raise taxes. There's a world of difference between holding an idiotic (or simply mistaken) belief and being an idiot.

* Personal examples. I also had a teacher who thought that things float in space because of "thin air" and another who thought that the stars shone by the reflected light of the Sun.

Deep down, we all know this to be true. But sometimes things get confusing.

Being Rational Is Not Enough

We all have an innate sense of curiosity, but critical thinking demands more than a simple desire to find things out. We have to constantly watch for our own biases, to check we're not believing something just because we want it to be true. It's not an easy skill, and unlike history or French or line dancing, it's not really something you can teach in a specific lesson. On the other hand, statistical thinking doesn't come naturally at all, but that definitely is something you can and should teach.

We tend to learn by induction - we see (or are told of) patterns and trends, and assume the're generally or always true in new situations. The classic example is that if we see a hundred white swans, we assume that all swans are white. Generally this is pretty sensible - after all, it's not practical for us to check every single swan on the planet - provided that if we do find a black swan we correct our opinion.

The difficulty with thinking statistically is that our own personal experiences are always true. When someone says something that's in flat contradiction to what we've seen with our own eyes, there is a certain logic in denying it. "You can't possibly have seen a black swan, you must be a very stupid person."The problem is that that's equally true from their perspective, but remembering this isn't easy - instinct takes over. It's even more difficult to realise that your experiences will have been influenced by a thousand different factors, and there's no reason to suppose that those will be the same everywhere.

Thinking in this way demands constant vigilance. Sometimes we can make those little personal exceptions : Granny might not be too fond of black people, but she's basically OK... that one swan was pink, yes, but - oh, wait, that was a flamingo. Whoops.


Statistical Thinking Needs To Be Taught

When we find an anomaly, we don't automatically say, "All my previous observations were unusual, this new thing is normal." Instead we assume that it's the new thing that's the anomaly. If you don't see any birds other than swans your whole life, then one day when you're six your parents take you away from the swannery where you grew up to visit the zoo and you see a flamingo, you aren't going to say, "wow a new type of bird !" You're going to say, "What a funny-looking swan !" And then your parents are going to feel like right idiots for apparently forgetting to teach you anything much at all, and you may be well on your way to becoming a bit of a thickie.

Thinking about what sort of selection effects are at work does not come naturally, and it's difficult. Because we tend to say that anything unusual to us is unusual overall (rather than assuming we've been in an unusual position), things that don't fit the pattern don't necessarily challenge our ideologies. If we find more examples, we just say there are more exceptions, more mitigating factors. The whole thing becomes unwieldy and complex. We don't like it. It was all so much simpler before the "anomalies" cropped up. We know there are exceptions, but we don't even really believe those are evidence that our assumptions are wrong because there are special exemptions.

Simple Messages... For Simple People ?

Then along comes a voice full of sound and fury that cuts through all that like a scalpel. Should we tighten border security to prevent foreign terrorists from entering ? NO LET'S JUST SEAL THE BORDERS COMPLETELY ! In fact, let's drive the English out of Scootland forever ! Ach ! FREEEEDOM !!!!

Of course it bloody didn't. The UK is a democratic country, and has been for quite a while. Scotland is not under the rule of a tyrannical English king and hasn't been for centuries. It was monstrously, disingenuously simple to claim that everything would have just magically have gotten better by breaking the union that's worked pretty well* for the last 300 years. But damn it was an appealing message, if you didn't stop to think about it for five minutes.

* It conquered the largest empire the world has ever seen and managed to lose it without descending into anarchy, and I call that a success.

Complicated messages are difficult to sell. "This new tax policy slightly favours the rich, except for those who don't employ more than seventeen butlers and only if they've never been to Zimbabwe with a goose" is just not as appealing as, "THIS POLICY HURTS THE POOR !" But the reality is that things are rarely so simple - their are usually caveats to everything.

Simple messages have the virtue of getting to the heart of the matter, to what we're really thinking beneath all those layers of exceptions we've accumulated. It's especially potent when it shifts the blame to someone else. So, "it's because of constant Western support for dictators due to profits from selling them weapons" becomes, "it's because dey is Musilms, innit !"

Being Rational Won't Save You From Stupidity

Now, to anyone thinking statistically, the second line of reasoning is laughably absurd. Simply put, if being a Muslim were the cause of violent extremism, we'd all be dead by now. But that point of view is understandable if all you see in the media is jihadist after jihadist, as opposed to, say, stories like this or this. It's as natural a conclusion to draw as that all swans are white. I've come to conclusions in a similar way myself. My point is that anyone blaming Muslims may have an idiotic point of view, but that doesn't automatically make them an idiot. They're coming to their conclusion by a process of reasoning which is actually perfectly rational, but woefully incomplete.

When confronted with the the reality that actually things are a bit more complicated than that, there are essentially two ways to proceed. The first is to say, "Oh, sorry, I was wrong." The second is to say, "GET LOST YOU COMMIE BASTARD I MEANT EVERY WORD OF IT !".

Now, in a rational world, one would think that the first option would be more admirable. Being prepared to admit your error and face the wrath of your enemies for doing so should be seen as courageous, but when did you ever see the headline, "POLITICIAN GUILTY OF LEARNING !" ?You never did, partially because there's a fundamental misunderstanding that intelligence means knowing all the right answers. Perhaps that's even true to some degree when you're ten and you're marked in school questions as right or wrong. It is not true in the grown-up world where there may not even be an answer at all, let alone one that's right or wrong.
This, I take it, gentlemen, is the degree, and this the nature of my advantage over the rest of mankind, and if I were to claim to be wiser than my neighbour in any respect, it would be in this - that not possessing any real knowledge of what comes after death, I am also conscious that I do not possess it.
Being aware that you don't know the answer doesn't make you stupid... unless there actually is an answer and you refuse to accept it : "NO MUMMY THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS FLAMINGOS !". Actually, when an issue is genuinely not yet settled, being certain of the answer is a sign of stupidity. While ideally you shouldn't be certain of uncertain things to begin with, it's still far better to change your opinion when confronted with good evidence - even if it takes you a long time to do so.

The Virtue Of Being Wrong

This is something we leave it until far too late to teach people : that research only happens because we don't know the answer, that while we might have simple answers to many children's questions (no, the Earth is not flat), when it comes to cutting-edge research things are altogether different. We forget that we can't learn new things if we already know the truth - we can't better ourselves without first admitting our flaws. It is, after all, somewhat comforting to believe we're already perfect.

That's only part of it. Admitting our mistakes is seen as a weakness, but on the other end, standing by our beliefs is seen as a sign of strength. And it does take courage to say unpopular, perhaps unpleasant things, or at least things which will cause strong reactions. But it appears to me that while we admire the courage of convictions, we almost never acknowledge the courage to change those convictions - which would probably go a long way to making the world a nicer place.

Sticking to your guns despite evidence to the contrary might be a brave thing to do, but it isn't rational. Nevertheless, a skilled, charismatic individual can use this perceived bravery to deadly advantage. The outcries from their opponents are deemed to reveal their own irrational, biased views : those "bleeding heart" liberals again ! See how they hate our righteous cause, they must be desperate to say such stupid things ! They're bound to disagree with us !


Taken all elements together - a simple but rational (though incomplete) and blame-shifting message, the lack of respect for people who change their mind, the perceived courage of maintaining one's ground in the face of attack, and the ability to make the oppositions's attacks look like a sign of bias, and disagreement become basically impossible. The attacks become stronger and stronger signs that the opposition are acting out of hate, not reason. The more outrageous the statements and the greater the refusal to back down, the more attacks are made, and the worse anyone disagreeing looks. Uncompromising men are not only easy to admire, they can be difficult to stop admiring.

A cult of ignorance probably doesn't look like that to its followers. It probably looks like someone is finally being honest enough to say what they're really thinking (despite the fact that that is not a virtue), to have the courage to agree with their entirely rational but uninformed conclusions, to circumvent the apparently highly contrived excuses of an intellectual elite. It does not necessarily happen simply because people are stupid.

It should be obvious by now what the end result of all this is.

Trump himself has no ideologies at all as far as I can tell, but he inspires those ideologies in others.
How do we break this madness ? I'm not sure, though I offer some suggestions as to what works to change my mind at the end of this post. It's important to remember that while people aren't entirely rational creatures, they're not entirely irrational either. I suggest not to play Trump's game. Don't leap in screaming how Trump is a moron, it only makes you look biased. Instead, chip away at his arguments one by one, arguing first towards doubt, not the extreme opposing viewpoint.

What I'm more sure about is how we can stop such utter lunatics rising to prominence in the future. Tony Blair, for all his many faults, had the right of it : education, education, education.
  • Statistics, statistics, statistics. We need this to be taught in primary schools - not the maths, but the methods : big-picture thinking, selection effects, etc. Statistics is also a good way to teach important aspects of critical thinking.
  • Better humanities classes in schools. Two things I strongly recommend : analysing adverts to see how people are manipulating you, and debates in which everyone is forced to advocate positions against their own viewpoint. Look at controversial, hard-hitting issues from a young age.
  • Compulsory study of Plato's Apology in early high school, maybe selected passages in primary school. There aren't many examples of martyrs to the right to question rather than the right to know, but this is one and it's absolutely magnificent.
  • Make children aware that what they're learning is a simplification. For god's sake tell them that the Solar System model of the atom isn't the final answer, and more importantly, that we don't have a final answer on many questions, that certainty is seldom justified outside the classroom.
  • Break up news corporations. No-one should have a monopoly on the truth. No individual should be able to control more than a single newspaper or television channel.
  • Continuously remind children never to be afraid of ugly facts... but at the same time, leaping to conclusions because of a single fact is not usually a good idea.
  • Make everyone watch more Doctor Who.

1 comment:

  1. How curious you mention it: I read the Apology at age 13, during the summer after first year at high school.


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