More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

“In my experience,” writes Mary Roach in Spook, “the most staunchly held views are based on ignorance or accepted dogma, not carefully considered accumulations of facts. The more you expose the intricacies and realities of the situation, the less clear-cut things become.”
This quote from Mary Roach is something I have experienced in my own life over and over. I have met many people with very strong views about subjects, and they very often oversimplify an issue and reduce arguments against their position to a straw man. Rather than carefully considering whether their opinions and perspectives are valid, they dismiss arguments against their favored position without real thought. And to be fair, this is something I have even caught myself doing.
I generally seem to be one of those people who can talk about challenging subjects with just about anyone. I think the reason why I am able to talk to people about difficult topics is because I always try to understand how reach the perspective they hold. I also try hard to understand why I hold my own opinions, and I try not to reduce either my own or another person’s opinion to a simple right or wrong morality judgment. I think we come to our opinions through many convoluted paths, and straw-manning an argument does an injustice to the opinions and views of others.
At the same time, I have noticed that those who hold the most oversimplified beliefs do so in a dogmatic manner, as Roach suggested. They may be able to consider facts and go through deeper considerations, but they ultimately fall back on simple dogma, rather than live with the complex cognitive dissonance required to accept that you believe one thing in general, but cannot always rely on that one thing to explain the particulars. Personally, I have found that I can have conversations with these people, but that I feel frustrated when they then turn around and post things on social media that are reductive and ignore the complex perspectives we previously talked through.
Like Roach, I find that those with more detailed and nuanced views, built out of an accumulation of facts, generally are less emotionally invested in a given topic. Perhaps it is a lack of passion for a topic which allowed them to look at facts in such detail, rather than adopting a favored view and immediately dismissing anything that doesn’t align with that view.
Ultimately, I think much of this behavior can be understood by reading Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain. We are all smart and capable of self-deception in order to more strongly believe the thing we want to believe. Over simplified dogmas simply help us do that better. I think we are often signaling our loyalty to a group or signaling some characteristic that we think is important when we make reductive and dogmatic statements. We recognize what identity we wish to hold and what is in our self-interest, and we act our part, adopt the right beliefs, and signal to others that we are part of the right in-group. In this way, the dogma is a feature and not a bug.
Personally and Politically Disturbed by the Homeless

Personally and Politically Disturbed by the Homeless

On the first page of the preface of The Homeless, Christopher Jencks writes about the responses that many Americans had to the rise of homelessness in American cities in the 1970s. He writes, “The spread of homelessness disturbed affluent Americans for both personal and political reasons. At a personal level, the faces of the homeless often suggest depths of despair that we would rather not imagine, much less confront in the flesh. … At a political level, the spread of homelessness suggests that something has gone fundamentally wrong with America’s economic or social institutions.”
I think the two books which most accurately describe the way that I understand our political and social worlds are Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. Kahneman suggests that our brains are far more susceptible to cognitive errors than we would like to believe. Much of our decision-making isn’t really so much decision-making as it is excuse making, finding ways to give us agency over decisions that were more or less automatic. Additionally, Kahneman shows that we very frequently, and very predictably, make certain cognitive errors that lead us to inaccurate conclusions about the world. Simler and Hansen show that we often deliberately mislead ourselves, choosing to intentionally buy into our minds’ cognitive errors. By deliberately lying to ourselves and choosing to view ourselves and our beliefs through a false objectivity, we can better lie to others, enhancing the way we signal to the world and making ourselves appear more authentic. [Note: some recent evidence has put some findings from Kahneman in doubt, but I think his general argument around cognitive errors still holds.]
Jencks published his book long before Thinking Fast and Slow and The Elephant in the Brain were published, but I think his observation hints at the findings that Kahneman, Simler, and Hanson would all write about in the coming decades. People wanted to hold onto beliefs they possibly knew or suspected to be false. They were disturbed by a reality that did not match the imagined reality in which they wanted to believe. They embraced cognitive errors and adopted beliefs and conclusions based on those cognitive errors. They deceived themselves about reality to better appear to believe the myths they embraced, and in the end they developed a political system where they could signal their virtue by strongly adhering to the initial cognitive errors that sparked the whole process.
Jencks’ quote shows why homelessness is such a tough issue for many of us to face. When we see large number of people failing and ending up homeless it suggests that there is something more than individual shortcomings at work. It suggests that somewhere within society and our social structures are points of failure. It suggests that our institutions, from which we may benefit as individuals, are not serving everyone. This goes against our beliefs which reinforce our self-interest, and is hard to accept. It is much easier to simply fall back on cognitive illusions and errors and to blame those who have failed. We truly believe that homelessness is the problem of individuals because we are deceiving ourselves, and because it serves our self-interest to do so. When we see homeless, we see a reality we want to ignore and pretend does not exist because we fear it and we fear that we may be responsible for it in some way. We fear that homelessness will necessitate a change in the social structures and institutions that have helped us get to where we are and that changes may make things harder for us or somehow diminishing our social status. This is why we are so disturbed by homeless, why we prefer not to think about it, and why we develop policies based on the assumption that people who end up homeless are deeply flawed individuals and are responsible for their own situation. It is also likely why we have not done enough to help the homeless, why it is becoming a bigger issue in American cities, and why we have been so bad at addressing the real causes of homelessness in America. There is definitely some truth to the argument that homelessness is the result of flawed individuals, which is why it is such a strong argument, but we should accept that there are some flawed causal thoughts at play and that it is often in our self-interest to dismiss the homeless as individual failures.

Cognitive Dissonance

I recent changed my mind about vaping. I have asthma and cigarette smoke really gives me terrible breathing problems so I have never smoked either traditional cigarettes or any type of vaping product. I have hated traditional cigarettes my whole life and as vaping has become a new hit, I have hated it as well. Since vaping really popped onto the scene, I considered it to be basically as evil as traditional cigarettes and didn’t make much of a distinction in my head between the two.

 

A recent podcast interview with Dr. David Abrahms on the Healthcare Policy Podcast changed my mind. Vaping products may be far less deadly than traditional burnt cigarettes. The addictive potential of nicotine is still there and there are certainly plenty of things in vaping products that we should not be putting into our lungs, but vaping products may have far fewer carcinogens than traditional cigarettes and appear as though they are far less deadly than traditional cigarettes. For the first time in history, we have a product which could completely displace traditional cigarettes and tobacco, and most importantly, save millions of lives. I still don’t like vaping and won’t ever do it myself, but I the new information has forced me to change the way I think about and respond to vaping.

 

As humans, we really are not very good at changing our mind. We are not very good at being receptive to information that conflicts with what we already think we believe or with what we want to believe. We become really good at rationalizing the beliefs we already hold or that we want to hold, and we discount any information that doesn’t fit the world view we would like to hold. Any argument or debate is basically meaningless because our beliefs often become part of who we are and become unchangeable as part of our identity.

 

Colin Wright addresses this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “First, we seldom experience cognitive dissonance, which is the feeling of discomfort associated with being exposed to information that contradicts our existing beliefs. This dissonance is a vital component of changing our mind and adjusting our views, and without it, without feeling that we might be wrong about something and therefore it’s probably important to check our math and learn more about the subject we’ve been armchair-philosophizing about on Facebook, we stand little chance of ever tempering our extreme, unjustifiable views.”

 

My example of changing my views on vaping is a short version of experiencing cognitive dissonance and being able to adjust opinions in the face of data, even when it is data that doesn’t align with what I want to see in the world (which is no one ever smoking anything). My example is less profound than changing beliefs about economic systems, about political parties, or about favorite super heroes. At some point I’m not sure we ever really will change those beliefs, but I think it is important to be aware of the small times when we change our beliefs so that we can better monitor the beliefs we do hold and be more aware of the times when we may experience cognitive dissonance. Rather than hiding behind a rationalization of our beliefs and pretending that everything within our belief structure is perfectly coherent, we can accept that there are some parts we don’t have figured out or don’t have perfect scientific evidence to support. For some questions, like what religious belief do you hold or what would be the perfect super power if you could only pick one, you will never have the perfect answer that solves all of life’s mysteries. It is ok to accept that people have been debating these questions forever and to not expect that you will suddenly find the perfect answer that no one else could. Cognitive dissonance may be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of our lives today and we should embrace it rather than try to hide from or ignore it.