Archive for January, 2015

Critical thinking & motivation

People will sometimes share stories or memes that are so obviously false that it’s hard to fathom how anyone wouldn’t instantly know it was false, or at least have enough doubt to check snopes. So it seems like they completely lack critical thinking ability. However, if someone from the outgroup makes a bad argument (gets facts wrong or uses bad logic), people seem to quickly identify the problems and express their outrage. Examples: (1) if a loyal Democrats hear a Republican make a bad argument, they seem to be able to provide counter-arguments quickly; (2) if someone who won’t vaccinate their kids hears an argument in favor of vaccines, they are able to identify some possible weaknesses in the argument; (3) if the latest study goes against someone’s beliefs, they all-of-a-sudden remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation.

If your ingroup isn’t threatened, then there isn’t much motivation for most people to use critical thinking. Sharing a story about the latest dangerous teenage trend isn’t about showing people that you know actual facts; it’s mostly about showing that you care about kids or that you are higher status than teenagers. That goal is accomplished by sharing the story.

However, if your ingroup is threatened, you have every reason to put on display your critical thinking skills. All of your ingroup will have the same motivation. You can bond over it. You can all show how devoted you are. And hence we get the blowback effect.

Politicians, bad arguments, devotion, & trolling

As a politician, you can take advantage of this. If you occasionally make a bad argument or get some facts wrong, you accomplish two things. (1) you show your base just how devoted to the cause you are. You aren’t that worried about the facts — you will support this cause regardless. Thus, they can count on you to not change your mind later on, if presented with strong evidence against your belief. (2) you troll the outgroup. The outgroup will be in critical thinking mode when you speak, and if you get some facts wrong or use poor logic they will be outraged.

You obviously can’t go too far with bad arguments and false claims or you will eventually lose credibility, but I think some bad arguments are necessary.


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Imagine a bot that scans all local headlines looking for a story that has the highest level of in-group outrage contagiousness potential. So a right-wing website might promote a story about someone taking advantage of a government program (such as lobster-eating SNAP participants, or public union members who constantly miss work and don’t get fired) or a leftist activist who was quoted as saying something anti-patriotic. A left-wing website might promote a story about a police officer who said something racist or a republican who is against same-sex marriage, but has a secret same-sex lover. A general news website might post a story about some dangerous thing two teenagers did somewhere and warn parents that it’s a dangerous new trend, or they might post about a person from a group that the public respects who received a 20 year sentence for a crime that seems like a minor offense.

If anyone bothers to dig deeper into these stories, they often find that some of the details that made them the most outrageous were not quite accurate. The actual story is usually a lot less ridiculous than the meme suggests. But people don’t seem to care much about accuracy.

We basically just want to use the story to show our friends the kinds of things that we are passionate about. Accuracy isn’t that important (unless accuracy is what we want to show our friends that we care about, but that’s a rare quality).

Imagine instead that, rather than scanning headlines desperately trying to find an extremely contagious viral meme, a website featured a daily story that their writers made up. So a right-wing site might feature a plausible-sounding story about a democrat who claims to want to fight global warming, but drives a Hummer and has a 10,000 sq ft house that they heat to 75 degrees all winter (what a hypocrite!). The gist of that story is probably true about someone, somewhere. A left-wing site might write a plausible-sounding story about a billionaire who pays the people that clean their mansions less than minimum wage (the greedy bastards!). Something like that is probably true somewhere.

The cherry-picked stories about specific people described earlier might not be more accurate, on average, than the made up stories about hypothetical people. Sure, we don’t know the names of the hypothetical people, but the stories probably fairly accurately capture somebody’s actual situation.

Of course, stories posted to ItsProbablyTrueSomewhere.com wouldn’t be very contagious, because people would know they were made up. It’s not the actual accuracy of the story that is important, but the ability for the belief-in-the-accuracy-of-the-story to be preserved from sharer to recipient. Fact checkers are smug assholes who aren’t invited to the party.

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Low social cost divorce

In Every Cradle is a Grave, Sarah Perry describes a hypothetical ‘land of free disposal,’ where barriers to suicide are removed. In this land, suicide is made easy, stigma is eliminated, and various methods for reducing the social cost are implemented. She goes on to suggest that “life, perhaps, would be more enjoyable and less miserable if it were not mandatory.”

I think there are a lot of similarities between life and marriage, suicide and divorce. A new marriage is a lot like a new life. One difference is that the people who decided to marry are the ones who formed the new ‘life,’ whereas with chidbirth the child had no say in the matter. However, this difference becomes smaller over time. People who decided to get married (e.g.) 20 years ago might hardly recognize the people (earlier versions of themselves) who made the decision to marry.

Divorce, no doubt, is painful for many people involved. However, the pain is made worse by stigma and the belief that it is a tragic thing that is harmful to all involved. Perhaps married people would find marriage more enjoyable if it were not mandatory. The idea that your spouse could leave but chooses not to sounds a lot more appealing to me than wondering whether your spouse is with you because they’re stuck. It also could make people less complacent in their marital relationship.

I think we are currently closer to a land of free marriage disposal than we are to a land of free (life) disposal, but we are not all the way there yet. If we keep moving in that direction, it will be interesting to see what the data show.

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There is a debate that rehashes itself every time there is a terrorist attack committed by Muslims. People like Bill Maher and Sam Harris scold the west (and liberals in particular) for being afraid to speak out against Islam. My interpretation of their argument is something like “Not all religions are equal. Islam is particularly bad in terms of treatment of women and anti-democratic values (anti-free speech etc). It is also a religion whose primary text (the Quran) is easier to interpret as advocating violence than the texts of other popular religions.”* People on that side of the debate mock people who call Islam “a religion of peace.”

On the other side of the debate are people who don’t think you should generalize. Their argument is something like this: “The people who did this are crazy extremists. They are not true Muslims, just like the Westboro Baptist Church aren’t true Christians. There are over a billion Muslims around the world who are against violence.”** Sometimes the argument also includes references to western violence against Muslims (such as invasion of Iraq and torture at Abu Ghraib).

I will now make 4 points about this debate:

1. There is no true Islam, true Christianity, true Buddhism, true Judaism, or true Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints-ism. Each religion has some text that is sacred. These texts are interpreted in varying ways by humans. There is no God telling you who is getting it right, even if there was a ‘right.’ It’s similar to how many different ways people interpret the constitution of the United States. There really isn’t a right way and certainly not a knowable right way (the founding fathers didn’t even agree on how to interpret it, possibly intentionally). There are probably clearly wrong ways to interpret some of these texts (like if you argued that the Bible teaches us to hate Jesus), but for the most part there are a lot of grey areas. And even if you interpret one of these texts in a way that most people would agree is wrong, you still might truly consider yourself part of that religion. So Islam is not a religion of peace. Nor is it a religion of terrorism. It’s both of those things and more. As one of my friends pointed out, Islam lead to both ISIS and Rumi.

2. However, that doesn’t mean all religions are equally good or bad. I’m comfortable with the argument that one religion is worse than another if its primary text can be more easily interpreted as advocating for things that we consider bad. Remember that people are pretty dumb, and if something can be interpreted in a way that sucks plenty of people will interpret it that way. Here I think Sam Harris does a better job than Dawkins, Maher, and regular guests of Fox News in criticizing Islam. In The End of Faith, Harris quotes many passages from the Quran that could be interpreted as advocating violence. I don’t know enough about various religions (including Islam) to know the degree to which the Quran is more easily interpreted as advocating violence, subjugation of women, or other things that we consider bad, relative to other religious texts. I do think that this sort of comparison might be useful if we wish to determine which religions are better than others (although that wouldn’t be the only useful criterion). Because even if religious scholars are able to see the historical context and are confident that these books don’t advocate violence, most of the faithful will just believe about them whatever their local in-group says about it.

3. Religious beliefs tend to cluster, as do cultures, poverty, education levels, health, etc. It seems likely that there are interactions between how people interpret their religious texts and their environment. For example, see violent Buddhist monks. Do some religions lead to more violence (and other things we consider bad) in a wider variety of environments? This is a very difficult question to answer, which is why I think we need to really consider point 2.

4. Even though I just wrote 3 paragraphs about this, I don’t really care much about points 1-3. The thing that matters to me is which strategy will lead to the best outcomes. One strategy is to be very vocal about how awful Islam is, even knowing that there are millions of Muslims who advocate peace, love, freedom, and education. Another strategy is to say that Islam itself isn’t the problem, even knowing that some terrorists openly say that they are committing the acts in the name of religion. I’m sure you can think of other strategies as well. What is notable to me is how rare it is for people to actually say why they think their strategy will lead to better outcomes. What’s even more notable to me is how rare it is for people to notice how rare it is for people to actually say why they think their strategy will lead to better outcomes. If you think we should speak out against Islam, but you can’t tell me why you think that will decrease terrorism, then you have nothing to offer the world on this topic. If you think we should avoid criticizing Islam, but you can’t say why you think that will make the world a better place, then you have nothing to offer the world on this topic.

*I’m sure people will argue that I didn’t get their argument exactly right. I realize that. Hopefully I’m at least capturing enough of its essence to make a point.

**I’m sure people will argue that I didn’t get their argument exactly right. I realize that. Hopefully I’m at least capturing enough of its essence to make a point.

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