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June 21, 2014 7:34 PM   Subscribe

I DON’T WANT TO BE RIGHT: why do people persist in believing things that just aren't true? The New Yorker asks. Alternatively, a BBC Future author offers up some beguiling and subtle solutions in The best way to win an argument.
posted by quin (61 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite

 
when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior.

Before I read the article and had only read the title, my first thought was, "well duh, people feel like being wrong is a blow to their whole identity." I mean, when you listen to an anti-vax person, or a climate change denier, a young earther, religious person etc., go into cognitive acrobatics to preserve some belief in the face of undeniable evidence to the contrary, it becomes pretty clear that the process has nothing to do with the information and belief per se, and much more to do with a sort of desperate self-preservation, like "I can't be wrong about this! That might mean I'm wrong about everything!" or "I've spent so long believing this, I can't turn back now." No one intentionally believes something they think is wrong - that's an almost tautological contradiction. People tend to, I think, gravitate to a sort of homeostasis in their worldviews, and incorporating some drastically new idea into the way you understand 'being' is a lot of cognitive work, often (and interestingly) much less so than adjusting your existing beliefs in altogether absurd ways.

There is something deep about this tendency that is, of course, not rational. And it isn't limited to the folks targeted just by this article (which, to be fair, are easy targets). A great deal of history's greatest scientists have been guilty of the inability to accept that they were fundamentally wrong about something. My total armchair psycho-analysis notion is that people tend to build their identities around continuity of personality or belief. Pretty much everything about you changes - from your memories to the very cells and atoms that make you. But you can kind of create this story about yourself based on your worldview, and this deeply imbedded cognitive impulse makes it hard for many people to willingly admit they are wrong, especially about deep issues with large consequences (like if vaccines don't cause autism, maybe there's something to this thing called 'science!').

And so as I've aged a little, I've really come to believe (ha) that one of the sort of elemental components of being an enlightened human being, one of the key aspects of like maturity or whatever, is to develop a nimble mind in the sense that you can readily admit you are wrong and constantly be able to incorporate new ideas into how you see existence when new evidence is presented. This sort of ascent to curiosity is super humbling but really, really rewarding. I'm not particularly stoked to ever quote Plato, but when Socrates said to the effect that the wise man is he who knows he is not, he was onto something more profound than such a platitude might at first suggest.

It's hard to imagine what the world, or at least the United States, would be like if more people could do this. It's hard sometimes for me to imagine the sort of twisted-ness a mind might have to develop in order to continue to be so staunchly illogical on issues like climate change, vaccinations, evolution, war, religion, etc.* The selective logic involved in such an exercise has got to wear a person down, leak into all sorts of other areas of their thought and sense of self. What kind of world might be possible if people just came out and said, "oh, interesting, my thinking was incorrect about that!" It would be both easier to progress and easier to forgive.

In any case, an interesting little article that addresses perhaps one of the most important questions we all face individually and as a society. Thanks for posting. I hope it encourages people to examine not their beliefs exactly but the way in which they examine their beliefs.

*obviously my views are undeniably correct on all such matters.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:18 PM on June 21 [64 favorites]


The idea that people are rational is itself a cognitive bias that comes from a desire to distill human complexity down to a rational essence.

I'm not wrong
posted by b1tr0t at 8:24 PM on June 21 [19 favorites]


But, when the researchers took a closer look, they found that the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn’t work—it made the subject more distrustful of the source. A climate-change study from 2012 found a similar effect. Strong partisanship affected how a story about climate change was processed, even if the story was apolitical in nature, such as an article about possible health ramifications from a disease like the West Nile Virus, a potential side effect of change. If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.
I suspect everyone reads that and nods sagely and thinks "yeah, those idiots on the other side are just like that."
posted by yoink at 8:27 PM on June 21 [10 favorites]


There is a spider patrolling my keyboard. Not one of the cute, fuzzy jumping spiders, one of the semi-hairy, bulbous abdomened spiders, with the too-long, too-angular legs. I'm typing this anyway, and it JUST ate a mosquito!

So, yeah, the spider is always right. Don't squish it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:30 PM on June 21


Don't squish it.
posted by Slap*Happy

I see what you did there.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 8:37 PM on June 21 [8 favorites]


I don't think that writer knows anything about the raw milk trend. People think raw milk is healthier, better-tasting and more useful than pasteurized milk, and they like buying milk (and other things) directly from local farmers. Saying, "doncha know pasteurized milk has been healthy for a hundred years?" is as inane as saying, "aren't chambers of commerce great? Don't you like Crisco?"
posted by michaelh at 8:47 PM on June 21 [8 favorites]


Here was the result I found most interesting:

People who provided reasons remained as convinced of their positions as they had been before the experiment. Those who were asked to provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues. People who had previously been strongly for or against carbon emissions trading, for example, tended to became more moderate – ranking themselves as less certain in their support or opposition to the policy.

In other words, if you want to convince someone to drop their religious beliefs you shouldn't try to argue that there is no God, you should ask them to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:49 PM on June 21 [49 favorites]


Saying, "doncha know pasteurized milk has been healthy for a hundred years?" is as inane as saying, "aren't chambers of commerce great? Don't you like Crisco?"

What if you can prove that raw milk is dangerous? Or are you rejecting that out of hand because it contradicts your pre-assumed idea?
posted by Justinian at 8:53 PM on June 21 [9 favorites]


I would like to see explanation-based lines of questioning implemented in all future political debates.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:56 PM on June 21 [11 favorites]


""noting that improperly handled raw milk is responsible for almost three times as many hospitalizations as any other food-borne illness.""

"improperly handled"? So is properly handled raw milk allowed?
posted by I-baLL at 8:57 PM on June 21 [2 favorites]


How's that go, "It wouldn't be faith if it didn't involve belief"?

Then, can we introduce the p value scandal that rocked the MiFi community. ;-) Is science all that reliable -- in the short term? Should you give up a belief just because someone brings a different bible, from a newer bigger scientific god? Did you personally run experiments that confirm your current belief hypothesis.

Science is hard (is that a misquote?) perhaps it is reasonable that convincing others that science is right should also be really hard?

Science news has a problematic reputation, got no idea where the funding would come from to improve it/tax on robots? But perhaps there should be vastly better reporting, as well as better teaching and television presentations?
posted by sammyo at 8:57 PM on June 21 [3 favorites]



"improperly handled"? So is properly handled raw milk allowed?

Many states allow farmers to sell milk directly from their milk tanks and of course, there is nothing stopping anyone from milking their own herd and drinking that. What's at issue is the banning of wholesale bottling and distributing of raw milk for retail sale - which personally (N.B., I am married to a WI farmgirl who grew up on milk fresh from the cows), I think is a net positive.

Yes, I know, that's how it used to be back in the good old days when man lived on the savannah and then science came along and now nothing has any taste or nutrition and why can't we go back to the old ways...
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:14 PM on June 21 [3 favorites]


What if you can prove that raw milk is dangerous? Or are you rejecting that out of hand because it contradicts your pre-assumed idea?

My pre-assumed idea? I'd say mine is that doing business directly with local farmers is good for communities' health and economy. I'd have a hard time being dissuaded that the overall movement to know what you're eating is unhealthy for people.

If raw milk was discovered to be some obvious carrier of a specifically identified disease, or if people kept leaving it on the counter for days before drinking it out of systemic stupidity, I'd be concerned, but that's just not how people use it. The CDC document is supposedly kind of dishonest but it seems to be that anybody who actually drinks it would rely on knowing the farmer and other people drinking the same milk since by nature it's not about aggregates and wide distributions of food.
posted by michaelh at 9:14 PM on June 21


Anyway, the overall principles are sound; it's just that the details of successful execution seem mighty elusive for the participants in the article. Asking for reasons as part of a conversation, and being willing to provide your own in turn, seems the most open-ended and flexible approach. Deciding that a certain bullet point doesn't nurture an identity without actually having experience "trying it" seems...like an opinion that's being held a little too reflexively.
posted by michaelh at 9:28 PM on June 21


Ultimately, we humans are feeling creatures. We incorporate information into our world view when we feel certain it is true or reject it if we feel doubt. Our rational minds find a way to justify it later. Of course, most of us live as if the process is reversed.

The method of winning an argument above is just the Socratic method; hammer someone's opinion with questions until you reveal their ignorance without running the risk of revealing your own. Once their certainty is shaken you can replace their original opinion with your own: they'll be too afraid of feeling foolish to risk disagreeing again. Even better, lead them to arrive at the desired belief on their own and they'll treat it like an insight. They might even thank you.

Hell, even if they were right to begin with, it will take them a while to go back to their original belief since they'd have to reopen that wound you delt to their certainty in the process.

Socrates was one hell of a sophist.
posted by Reyturner at 9:47 PM on June 21 [11 favorites]


[A few comments deleted. When you feel the lure of the Troll side of the Force, please resist. Your bleary-eyed moderators thank you.]
posted by taz at 10:06 PM on June 21 [25 favorites]


the students who scored highest on racial prejudice continued to rely on the racial misinformation that identified the perpetrators as Aboriginals, even though they knew it had been corrected....

In a follow-up... it was students who had scored lowest in racial prejudice who persisted in their reliance on false information
What's annoying about this kind of reporting--summarizing scientific research without including a single piece hard data--is that it's unclear if the results are universal. Did every prejudiced participant bring up the incorrect identification of the criminal? Did every not-racist (and really, how accurate can that self-assessment be anyway) participant persist in believing the hero was Aboriginal?

In other words, is this 100% human nature, no exceptions, or is it more that there's a strong predisposition among people to interact with the world this way, but a few/some/many people don't? Are there no humans at all (as far as these studies can show) who are able to be rational about facts that don't play into their preconceived notions of self? None?
posted by tzikeh at 11:01 PM on June 21 [2 favorites]


yoink: "I suspect everyone reads that and nods sagely and thinks "yeah, those idiots on the other side are just like that.""

Then there are the ones who try to outclever everyone by pointing out how they truly don't know better, thus, theoretically in some small way, being admissive of their own humility, are doing a bit of a humble-brag by acting as if they understand that they know they don't know, which really turns into a self satisfaction of saying you know you don't know so therefore you know, and that's really what it's all about, and so in the end you do know, so HA SUCKERS! I mean... "I don't know!"
posted by symbioid at 11:11 PM on June 21 [8 favorites]


If raw milk was discovered to be some obvious carrier of a specifically identified disease

Just so it's clear, an example of the sort of thing the CDC is concerned about is tuberculosis. Before public health efforts (which began back when none of the dairy farms would have looked like industrial farms to a modern eye) to reduce the risks associated with drinking milk (efforts like pasteurization) a significant number of the cases of human tuberculosis originated from drinking milk from a cow infected with bovine tuberculosis.

Maybe raw milk producers and distributors have different ways to compensate for the same risks as our established public health systems, or maybe they don't, but severe health problems that arise from the consumption of dairy—including transmission of potentially-lethal virulent diseases—aren't a handwavey or speculative thing.

Milk pasteurisation and safety: a brief history and update (PDF, 1997)
posted by XMLicious at 11:34 PM on June 21 [27 favorites]


Then there are the ones who try to outclever everyone by pointing out how they truly don't know better, thus, theoretically in some small way, being admissive of their own humility, are doing a bit of a humble-brag by acting as if they understand that they know they don't know, which really turns into a self satisfaction of saying you know you don't know so therefore you know, and that's really what it's all about, and so in the end you do know, so HA SUCKERS! I mean... "I don't know!"

Just don't overdo it or... you know... hemlock.
posted by Reyturner at 12:27 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


Thanks for interesting links. I hope this will not devolve into a raw-milk fight, because I find the actual discussion in the articles very relevant and helpful (I was about to post a question on AskMefi along these lines).
I can recognize from experience that the socratic approach is indeed more helpful than just laying out facts. But how does one apply that to a larger group?
posted by mumimor at 12:28 AM on June 22


In the second article, I'm not sure about the distinction between reasons and explanations. What, does the author think, is the key difference? I don't feel it was made precise enough.
posted by polymodus at 12:28 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


My total armchair psycho-analysis notion is that people tend to build their identities around continuity of personality or belief.

As another person with armchair psychoanalysis notions a big deal of Lutoslawski's post on the inflexibility of beliefs reminded me of this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_consistency
posted by bigendian at 1:32 AM on June 22


The distinction between reasons and explanations.

It's the difference between 'why' and 'how', I think.

I see two issues with the research. Using real issues means people import information and attitudes whose influence is an important unknown, undercutting your ability to draw conclusions.

The other is that in lab conditions people try to give the answer the researcher wants. If, for example, you ask the same question twice and do something in between, almost anyone will recognise that the between thing is 'meant' to influence their answer, and some will try to oblige. This IMHO has been the effect behind countless recent studies supposedly showing how X influences attitudes.

Good psychological research needs an element of low cunning and subterfuge.
posted by Segundus at 1:40 AM on June 22 [4 favorites]


I'd say mine is that doing business directly with local farmers is good for communities' health and economy.

Are you saying that if a local farmer pasteurised her dairy's milk, while another farmer didn't, you wouldn't treat them any differently when making your milk purchasing decisions?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:54 AM on June 22


The problem with the second article is that it presents a mechanism that seems to work only to reduce certainty. That's not really "winning" an argument, except insofar as a less certain opponent is by definition closer to your position by merit of moving closer to the center. It's certainly not a mechanism for two interlocutors to get more right, since the end result of any application of the method will be to make everyone less certain. I suppose if one is a dyed-in-the-wool centrist, that's always a desirable thing, if you think that truth is always in the center and that anyone who is sure of herself is surely misguided. And the authors of the mindhacks article seem to support this view:
People who had previously been strongly for or against carbon emissions trading, for example, tended to became more moderate – ranking themselves as less certain in their support or opposition to the policy.
But this is only a good thing if you think everyone on both sides should be less sure of themselves. Which may be true, but there's no reason it should always be so, especially about matters like climate change where there are definite facts of the matter. I suspect even vaccination advocates would become less certain if you asked them to describe in detail the mechanisms by which vaccination works. Maybe more uncertainty is the best route to a better society, but by itself this procedure doesn't seem to be of any clearer benefit than any other uncertainty-sowing mechanism, such as the chewbacca defense.
posted by chortly at 2:42 AM on June 22 [7 favorites]


This discussion overlaps with propositional logic, which allows examination of the consistency of some ones logic. I would like to examine this subject more deeply but have never found any easily read links.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 2:42 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


I just designed and installed a few pasteurizers. AMA.

Raw milk is dicey.

Ever watched a milking operation? Cow needs to shit, it shits. Now.

Drink that. (Just a reminder... microbes are not visible to the naked eye. )
posted by FauxScot at 4:49 AM on June 22 [16 favorites]


We read articles like these because we are right and don't understand why there are so many wrong people in the world who can't see that. What's the matter with those people? We want them to see the Truth, not for our own selfish reasons, but because we want to help them. We are helpful people who want to make the world a better place.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:01 AM on June 22 [3 favorites]


"we are right and don't understand why there are so many wrong people in the world who can't see that"

For me, it isn't about being right or wrong. Any scientist can tell you that the research can show certain conclusions, and when the research is extended or discredited, the conclusions aren't always wrong, but they can be adjusted as to their 'rightness' or 'wrongness.' These conclusions can still become a part of the foundation for the ideas that surround the topic, and they have value, right or wrong or anywhere in between.

Being 'right' or 'wrong' is irrelevant - people want others to be flexible enough to adopt certain conclusions based on evidence, and when the conclusions change, they need to be able to change too.

I think this is one of the things that Bill Nye is trying to get across while debating eviscerating Ken Ham. Bill says that he will change his conclusions when evidence is presented that conflict with his beliefs - this ability to change is what we need.
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 6:31 AM on June 22 [4 favorites]


In other words, if you want to convince someone to drop their religious beliefs you shouldn't try to argue that there is no God, you should ask them to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.

In the years after World War Two the Allies were faced with thousands of Nazi functionaries who remained true believers in the Nazi cause but whose skills were really needed in order to keep German society functioning. These people had been heavily indoctrinated by one of the most effective propaganda machines in all of human history and they were intensely resistant to any arguments against their ideology.

The people who were given the task of de-programming these heavily indoctrinated believers found the only thing that worked was to get a small group of them together and ask them to explain their own ideology. Instead of telling the Nazis why they were wrong they just pointed out things that hadn't worked or couldn't work and asked what else could be done. They found that it usually took only a few days of this for even the most hardened believers to start doubting their own ideology enough to open up to accepting their defeat and working within the new system.
posted by localroger at 6:34 AM on June 22 [37 favorites]


Daniel Kahneman says that the brain is a machine for jumping to conclusions. My friend McCarthy says that it's really more of a machine for stabilizing beliefs we already have--that is, resisting belief-revision. Both could be right...scary thought...

Research like this is interesting, but I am a little concerned about the suggestion that we avoid examining reasons on both sides in policy debates and focus on stuff that's more likely to change people's minds. Though we'd still be focusing on good evidence, isn't this still manipulative? My worry--not well-worked-out at this point--is something like: technically that's in bounds...but it may be out of the spirit of democracy...

I teach critical thinking, and my view is that the most important thing I can teach students is the importance of admitting error, and admitting when they don't know. It's weirdly hard to admit error...but if you can't do that, there's no sense in thinking at all, and no sense in taking a class on thinking. In fact, without the willingness to admit error, you probably just get better at sealing yourself up in the beliefs you already have. It just makes matters worse.

As for the "sense of self" stuff...I suspect that's vaguely in the right area. One approach I favor is to get people to work hard to depersonalize ideas. The more objective you can be, the more dispassionate, the more you can examine the argument from a bird's-eye view, the more likely you are to be able to see it aright...and, I think, the more likely you are to follow the reasons wherever they might lead.

One thing I encourage people to do is to avoid passionate, enthusiastic, and dogmatic assertions of their positions and arguments. Personally, I find that, if I've said something like "look, position x is just wrong, and that's obvious," I then find myself loath to admit when someone makes a good point against me, because I feel as if I look foolish and stupid. And, despite the fact that I probably ought to be used to that by this point in my life, I don't like it... Instead, I try to get people to say things more like "It seems to me that x is wrong for reason y...what am I missing here?"

We're all wrong about a lot of things. I say that to myself like a mantra. In the Hagakure says some stuff roughly like: think of yourself as dead already, and it'll be a lot easier to be brave and do what you need to do. I think: realize you're wrong about a bunch of stuff from the get-go, and it'll be a lot easier to admit that in particular cases.

Also: I try to avoid shrill, dogmatic, irrational people and discussions, because that brings out the worst in me. When I discuss things with reasonable people on the other side of an issue, I tend to move toward them, feel more gracious and willing to admit error. When I discuss things with unreasonable people, I tend to become more dogmatic about my own position. Being reasonable is, to some extent, a community thing. So seeking out a more rational community helps a lot.

That's why tone matters, and I am skeptical of objections to "tone policing." A shrill, dogmatic tone can ruin a discussion, and turn it into a fight, were no one will change their mind. IMO, few things are better for a discussion than a calm, friendly, reasonable tone... Of course, one can't expect to be calm with, say, Holocaust deniers or whatever... But whatever... Nietzsche says something like: sometimes it's not what is said with which we disagree, but the tone in which it is said. I think that's right. Tone can say "you are an idiot and I am contemptuous of you and your beliefs" about as easy as that can be said with words...

Great post, thx quin.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:37 AM on June 22 [9 favorites]


michaelh: "If raw milk was discovered to be some obvious carrier of a specifically identified disease,"

Tuberculosis. It's tuberculosis.

Like half the modern veterinary profession developed around nothing but preventing milk-borne illnesses, particularly TB, from passing to humans. It's seriously the major preoccupation of the profession until after WWII. A raw-milk scheme that adequately protects humans from TB requires frequent inspections and tests by licensed veterinarians, and it is expensive, and if TB is found, requires destruction of the animal and occasionally the entire herd. (During the 60 days the herd is being re-tested to be cleared of TB, they are not allowed to graze freely and must remain in restricted sanitary quarters -- i.e., generally the barn.) It is an expensive, intensive way to run a dairy, with a great deal of risk; dairy farmers went bankrupt far more often.

Generally raw milk dairies are not interested in returning to the old-fashioned TB-preventing methods of running dairies, because they are so expensive and (back in the day) required extremely frequent government inspections for safety standards. They want to use the easier, modern health-and-hygiene standards of pasteurization herds but without the safety of pasteurizing.

People also get listeria and salmonella and stuff, but tuberculosis is the big public-health one -- although my state had three miscarriages due to listeria in (legally sold) raw-milk cheeses in 2011 (when I was pregnant) ... listeria isn't often deadly to adult humans (just unpleasant), but it cuts off the blood supply to the fetus and is deadly to fetuses.

Also typhoid and diptheria, which we now vaccinate against so aren't too big a risk to most of us ... but raw milk devotees are often also anti-vax and pro-whole-foods-for-children, which makes raw milk somewhat extra-terrifying.

In most urban areas in the 1880s or so, after industrialization but before pasteurization, unsafe milk was the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5. The whole pasteurization-of-milk scheme didn't just come up because the government had nothing better to do; milk was significantly unsafe and responsible for many childhood deaths and many public health problems that affected even those who didn't drink milk (contagious disease outbreaks). When raw milk advocates and dairies can show that they a) understand that history and the risks involved in raw milk and b) are prepared to adequately offset those risks, I'll be prepared to take them seriously. (And I know a few raw dairies that do. It's not impossible. But most raw dairy advocates are just reactively, "natural is better!" and have no idea what they're talking about and give raw milk to their unvaccinated children, which is horrifying.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:39 AM on June 22 [118 favorites]


I'm going to brag and say that I have a more-nimble-than-average mind (in terms of comfort with being wrong), but it's not because I'm a genius. It's because I've spent decades being proven wrong every day, often many times a day. It's happened for so many years that it's become my norm. And now, if I don't have the sensation of being wrong, I become mistrustful. I assume I must have made a mistake and can't see it. (I've found that if I feel super-confident, I am right only about 50% of the time. So I no-longer correlate that sort of I-know-it-in-my-heart feeling with correctness.)

My main activities are programming computers and directing plays. I am not naturally-gifted at either, though I've done both for over 35 years. My approach, in both disciplines, is trial-and-error. I walk into a rehearsal room, try something with the actors, it inevitably fails, and so I tweak it and try something else.

Sometimes I get into conflicts with actors who don't want to try something because they feel it's a waste of time. "It's obviously not going to work," they say. I ask them to try it anyway. Of course they're right most of the time, because most things don't work. But, to me, nothing is certain until it's tried. I don't assume it will or won't work--no matter what my gut tells me--until I try it. The "program" has to actually be run. When it's just "on paper," it's meaningless.

Only an impending deadline will force me (reluctantly) to work something out in my head instead of via action. I don't trust my head. I trust actually trying it and seeing what happens. My head can be wrong. Reality can't.

Years ago, I found this quotation on Stack Overflow. I can't attribute it, because it's been taken down, but it's brilliant. As soon as I read it, I thought, "Yes! That's exactly what I've experienced!"

"I no longer equate thinking I'm right about something with actually being right about it.

It's now very easy for me to entertain the thought that I may be wrong even when I feel pretty strongly that I'm right. Even if I've been quite forceful about something I believe, I'm able to back down very quickly in the face of contradicting evidence. I have no embarrassment about admitting that I was wrong about something.

That all came from decades of working in a discipline that mercilessly proves you to be mistaken a dozen times a day, but that also requires you to believe you're right if you're going to make any progress at all."

I know programmers (and directors) who don't go through this process. Some are simply better than I am, so their programs get into working-shape faster. Of course, they make mistakes, but not as often as I do. They more-often have the experience of thinking they're right and then being proven right. If "genius is 99% perspiration" for most people, it's 99.99999999999% with me.

Others simply play it safe, working on the same sorts of applications for years. In theatre, we're talking about aesthetics, and that's a murky-enough subject to allow some people to "always be right." All I know is, a scene affects me profoundly or it doesn't. I can't hide from the fact that it's not. If it's not (if it doesn't make me want to laugh or cry), I know it's failing.

All of this has led me to two observations:

1) Most people almost never have this sort of experience. They don't fail multiple times a day, because they've rigged their lives so that it can't happen. They've gotten jobs which might have had steep learning curves, but now that they're experts, they can coast. Everyone fails, of course, but most people don't put themselves in positions in which they're bound to fail constantly. When they see that pattern starting to happen, they get out. They say, "This simply isn't my thing." (It's how they judge whether or not something is their thing.)

I first noticed this when I worked as a computer trainer at Sotheby's. I had to teach Excel to people who were experts in 18th Century French porcelain. They would inevitably say, "I'm not good at this computer stuff." What became clear, though, is that they weren't good at learning new things. They simply hadn't had to do that very often since leaving school. They had gone through a period, when they were younger, when they crammed their brains, and now they were coasting on that knowledge.

In fact, our culture is structured to allow and encourage that. School trains us to hate failure and to find a niche in which we can be successful without failing. It's in school that we learn "I'm not one of those creative types" or "I'm not a math person." Even though failure is the best learning tool, I never had a single teacher who said, "Great! You failed! Let's see what we can learn from it" or "Hm. You've gotten three As in a row. I must not be challenging you. Let's see if I can push you to failure."

This is a big issue for me, so forgive the self link: Why do we get frustrated when learning something?.

2) When you commit to "I'm probably wrong" or "There's a good possibility that I'm wrong, and I can't know until I've tried," it becomes hard to communicate with people who assume they're right unless proven wrong.

If I'm in an argument and the other guy insists he's right, he will probably win by shear force of insistence. Because I won't insist I'm right, even if I'm sure I am. Not unless we've "run tests." I will confidently own my gut feelings, and I'll also confidently own my understanding of the subject, but I will also be clear that my knowledge is provisional. (I avoid discussing certain subjects, such as politics, because those discussions are almost always about making loud assertions.)

I find that the pros of this approach outweigh the cons, but there are cons, and the biggest one is having trouble living in a world in which people want you to take a firm side and defend it, going by faith if necessary.
posted by grumblebee at 7:12 AM on June 22 [65 favorites]


The technique described in the second article--ask the other person to describe how their model works--definitely sounds promising. On climate change, for example, you could ask a climate change skeptic to explain the mechanism that would prevent temperatures from rising as greenhouse gases increase. (Or, if you're a skeptic, you could ask a climate hawk to explain how carbon taxes would be effective at reducing carbon emissions without also reducing economic activity, or how you get from national reductions to global reductions.)

I like William James' description of how everyone resists changes to their existing beliefs:
The observable process which Schiller and Dewey particularly singled out for generalization is the familiar one by which any individual settles into new opinions. The process here is always the same. The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently.

This new idea is then adopted as the true one. It preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible. An outre explanation, violating all our preconceptions, would never pass for a true account of a novelty. We should scratch round industriously till we found something less eccentric. The most violent revolutions in an individual's beliefs leave most of his old order standing. Time and space, cause and effect, nature and history, and one's own biography remain untouched. New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity.

The point I now urge you to observe particularly is the part played by the older truths.... Their influence is absolutely controlling. Loyalty to them is the first principle--in most cases it is the only principle; for by far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them.
posted by russilwvong at 7:20 AM on June 22 [5 favorites]


grumblebee: ...there are cons, and the biggest one is having trouble living in a world in which people want you to take a firm side and defend it, going by faith if necessary.

We have have created an economy (if not a culture) based on an idea of Freedom that amounts to, "Just spend a little money and you can take the easy way out of this problem. No one's going to tell you you're wrong. And hey, it's going to be fun! It's all good." In this vast consumer paradise, we teach people that those choices (and the choice to not spend money) are hardly worth thinking about. The whole thing is set up to let people avoid the feeling of being wrong.
posted by sneebler at 7:49 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]


I can recognize from experience that the socratic approach is indeed more helpful than just laying out facts. But how does one apply that to a larger group?

With great difficulty. While presenting blank slates with entirely new information can be done somewhat effectively, though inefficiently, via techniques such as non-interactive lectures with large audiences, an awful lot of learning involves getting people/students (even young ones) to revise previous misconceptions or partial understandings, and this is very hard to do without engaging the individual and guiding them through individually-relevant cognitive work. There are some techniques, like peer instruction, that have been developed to help improve the effectiveness of large lecture style classes, and probably have their analogues in marketing, politics, and other areas (that people don't usually think of as "education", because we have this mistaken idea that education = a particular formal school structure).
posted by eviemath at 8:05 AM on June 22 [4 favorites]


I can recognize from experience that the socratic approach is indeed more helpful than just laying out facts. But how does one apply that to a larger group?

I agree with eviemath that this approach would be much more suited to one-on-one conversation, but I wonder if some sort of "reverse PSA" would be worth trying in the public-health realm? Like a "Explain to us how vaccines cause harm" website? (Can we program Socratic-method multiple-choice quizzes now? Maybe Buzzfeed quizzes could solve climate change.)
posted by jaguar at 9:40 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


This might be a bit tangential, but I just found this 9-minute TED talk by Dan Gilbert which seems to speak to the personal aspect of how we experience decision-making.

"Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’re ever been. The one constant in our lives is change."
posted by sneebler at 10:00 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


The one constant in our lives is change."

Boy wouldn't that be great, me, I make the same darned mistakes over and over, poke along on the same route back and forth, bored with my own oft repeated yokes. Personal change is a huge huge mythos in contemporary culture. Read about screenwriting, the protagonist must have an ark, if s/he does not change the movie is a failure. But people just don't change much. (I am so going to get flamed).
posted by sammyo at 11:04 AM on June 22 [3 favorites]


Read about screenwriting, the protagonist must have an ark

Well it's true that most protagonists don't build a large boat and wait for a flood.
posted by localroger at 11:29 AM on June 22 [3 favorites]


(I am so going to get flamed).

Well it's true that most protagonists don't build a large boat and wait for a flood.

Indeed, and an ark would be less helpful in the fiery variety of apocalypse:-P
posted by eviemath at 2:29 PM on June 22


I feel like the effort to try to change people's minds about subjects as described in the New Yorker article ignores the underlying problems that are not being solved. For example, I do not believe that vaccines cause autism, but families with or without autistic children deserve to know what did, if anything, cause their autism. As far as I know, no progress has been made in understanding where autism comes from or what if anything causes it, and yet the number of children being identified as being on the spectrum increases, and the costs stemming from trying to educate and help these children live normal lives is very high. Subsequently the fear persists.

The same thing exists with raw milk: I don't want to see anyone die from consuming raw milk, but there is a concern that mass produced and commercially farmed food is the cause of illnesses that did not exist in the pre-modern world, so if we return to the habits of that time, we should be able to erase those illnesses. That thinking is flawed, but the concern about the effects of commercially farmed food is real, and nothing seems to be happening to address it. The FDA seems to be poorly equipped if not toothless in the face of corporations and the food industry. And the fear continues. Whether it's people feeling like strangers in their own country or frustration about how to prevent disease, we need to get to the heart of the fear, where ever it festers.
posted by koucha at 2:58 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]


Anti-pazzer, pasteurization "fact" resister reporting here; the cooking safens milk and also those juices subject to pasteurization regulations in recent years as in New York after a disturbing apple juice E. Coli tainting, but the cooking kills the taste and no doubt kills all the beneficial microbes which we all now know due to favorable media are the difference between live food and dead food, as well as the difference between a healthy gut and a degraded gut, healthy skin and depleted skin.

The unpasteurized cider was fruity and good, if risky to some extent, while the pasteurized kind is not worth the effort, dead food tastes not.

Please allow me to stomp on your supposed good will by noting as a vax-skept that although surely all vaccinations now are safe thanks to Big Pharma legals concerns, who might say what corporate pharma dosed and greased their vaxxes with back in the day (mercury?), the day being the ignorant 20's-90's, which now is unrecoverably covered up.
posted by koebelin at 5:27 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


I turned around my thinking on GM foodstuffs as a result of trying to articulate my concerns with it, so that part of the article rings true at least. I still fret over modern farming practices but the GM crop aspects of it are mostly tangential.
posted by um at 5:41 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


Another formerly anti-science, fact-resistant belief system which we now may want to reconsider as maybe considerate, the John Birchy, lunatic anti-fluoridation viewpoint. Why add chemicals to the water supply? What about purity of essence?
posted by koebelin at 5:52 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


sammyo: "The one constant in our lives is change."

Boy wouldn't that be great, me, I make the same darned mistakes over and over, poke along on the same route back and forth, bored with my own oft repeated yokes. Personal change is a huge huge mythos in contemporary culture. Read about screenwriting, the protagonist must have an ark, if s/he does not change the movie is a failure. But people just don't change much. (I am so going to get flamed).


Oh, I wouldn't flame you for that, at all! I do think it's sad, though, that you see personal change as a myth, like life just happens to you. Personal change is something that comes about by recognizing that at any moment you can change who you are, what you do, and how you act. You are not locked into anything.

In some ways, ironically, I think chronic mental or physical health conditions help you see that more clearly. Your body and mind may may fail you, but you find hidden reserves to cope with that, and develop ways to become better at dealing with the blows. When you suffer from depression, you learn to watch out for the symptoms creeping up on you, the early warning signs, because you have to know when you may need to go on medication (or go back on it, or change it) to keep from falling into that black abyss of your depressive state again. But after a while, you learn not just how to recognize the signs, but how to avoid (whenever possible) the stressors that lead to those symptoms cropping up at all. You stop just reacting to life, and start becoming proactive in your life. And that teaches you that you DO have control over how you handle things like stress and illness...

Which comes in handy when you develop a chronic health condition, too, because when there's no clear cure---well, you can't control that, and it is incredibly stressful and depressing. But you already know you can handle the stress and the depression because you've done it before. So even there, you have some level of control.

I'm still working on that part, honestly, and not doing so well lately--in fact I probably need to see someone about my depression again because my latest meds for the other stuff have hit me pretty hard and I've been a depressed, bitter ass lately--but the point is, who you are is never set in stone. You can change at any time. It's not what happens to you, but what you do about it.

Sorry to get preachy at you. TL;DR: Personal growth isn't a myth, it's a natural result of the actions you take--or consciously choose not to take--at every stage of your life.
posted by misha at 6:43 PM on June 22


quin: "Alternatively, a BBC Future author offers up some beguiling and subtle solutions in The best way to win an argument."

Is it to describe the opposite of what you want your mark to conclude as something Obama wants and or believes?
posted by pwnguin at 7:49 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]


The unpasteurized cider was fruity and good, if risky to some extent, while the pasteurized kind is not worth the effort, dead food tastes not.

Juuust so there isn't too much elided in the brief mention of "risky" there... living in Northern New England, next to the occasional toothless old French Canadian farmer who plays a mean fiddle and has made and drunk cider their whole lives, I have actually been to a cider-making party and participated in making apple cider. So I know that it's made at the end of the apple-picking season from the apples that have fallen to the ground.

One reason it tastes so good is that it's partly made from rotting apples that have begun to ferment while lying in the sun all day for an extended period of time. It also contains a not-insignificant amount of mold and ground-up bugs.

So yeah, something like this you've made yourself, when you have full first-hand knowledge of what goes into it, is a worthwhile experience and a fine situation to apply your own judgement to, like applying the ten-second rule when you accidentally drop something on your kitchen floor. I was less enthused to see the owners of the orchard this was all happening at bottle the cider in jugs labelled "pasteurized" and proceed to sell it at a roadside stand. (I assume they were just bottles left over from an operation somewhere on the farm that actually involved a pasteurized product, and this was just an oversight instead of an actual attempt to deceive passers-by.)
posted by XMLicious at 7:52 PM on June 22 [6 favorites]


I don't want to see anyone die from consuming raw milk, but there is a concern that mass produced and commercially farmed food is the cause of illnesses that did not exist in the pre-modern world

Illnesses that did not exist in the pre-modern world like tuberculosis!
posted by Justinian at 9:00 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]


You shouldn't be drinking cow's milk, no matter what sort.

NOTMILK

NOW LET ME TELL YOU WHY YOU ARE WRONG!
posted by mrgrimm at 11:07 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


I eat my cereal with Coca Cola like any good god-fearing American.
posted by Justinian at 2:50 AM on June 23 [3 favorites]


Come on, have some backbone you Cocaquolatoast.
posted by XMLicious at 3:15 AM on June 23 [3 favorites]


kobelin: ... surely all vaccinations now are safe thanks to Big Pharma legals concerns, who might say what corporate pharma dosed and greased their vaxxes with back in the day (mercury?), the day being the ignorant 20's-90's, which now is unrecoverably covered up.

In case you're not kidding, some vaccines still contain thimerosal, which is a mercury-based preservative. Being ignorant of some easily accessible chemistry allows people to conflate the real toxicity of mercury with an imagined threat from the vaccine.

How do you think we should preserve vaccines if they can't be refrigerated until used?

How do you think we could explain importance of the mercury-as-a-preservative issue to the average American?
posted by sneebler at 6:30 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]


mid-teens, really high on marijuana for the first time -- I quickly concluded that pretty much everything I'd ever been told about anything was if not outright wrong, certainly oversimplified. So yeah, if push comes to shove, of course, I'm wrong. We all are. But I'm still in no hurry to drink raw milk.
posted by philip-random at 9:12 AM on June 23


like applying the ten-second rule when you accidentally drop something on your kitchen floor

ten seconds???

Drop biscuit, finish tea, wash dishes, fiddle thumbs, teach dog to roll over, call grandma, sort mail, flip through tv channels, practice whistling Bonanza theme song, scratch ass........... Pick up biscuit.
posted by JenMarie at 11:20 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


The extra crunchy bits make it better! The Mongols used to tenderize their beef jerky and biscuits and crumpets by keeping it all underneath the saddle as they rode!

And if you're riding a pregnant mare you can have some milk when you stop on the brisk, arid, wind-swept steppe for tea. You might find yourself getting a little horse, though.
posted by XMLicious at 12:49 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


FLAGGED AS UNNECESSARY PUNS
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:33 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Ah, they must've added another positive-type flag to go along with "fantastic."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:32 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


NOOOOOOOOOPE
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:39 AM on June 27




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