Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Desperately Misunderstanding

Ideally, in rational discourse you have two or more parties both trying to get to a more accurate understanding of something. As Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias said of a debate he was about to engage in, "If I'm lucky, maybe he'll change my mind". It's not a conflict, it's a collaboration.

But this is the experience of people genuinely trying to get to an answer. To do this, both must share assumptions about how we get to the truth, and whether in fact any one person has a lock on it. The reality of course is that most people don't debate in good faith; most people are invested in a position and even when presented with abundant evidence, don't change their position (or change it very gradually). This behavior is most common in religion and politics but it can happen in any venue where people disagree. One trick to tell quickly if you're in a bad-faith discussion: offer to paraphrase the other party's position. If they're genuinely after the truth, they'll enthusiastically agree. If they know their argument is paper thin or they want to reserve the right to change it on you later, they won't. It not only keeps you from wasting time, it signals to the other party that you're a good-faith partner in the conversation, and it can help you understand.

I do give people enough credit - even (especially) the religious - to assume that in these cases, they aren't deliberately concealing their arguments, they're just desperately avoiding understanding something. Arguments (whether logically valid or not) are just understanding-bridges from point A (what the audience now believes) to point B (what you want them to believe). People will do anything to avoid taking steps out onto that understanding-bridge. Two examples: repetition of known falsehoods, and misinterpretation of arguments. You know those "huh" non-sequitur moments? Like "Phineas Gage's personality may not have shifted as much as is commonly believed, therefore there cannot be a material basis for the mind and personality" or "Niagara Falls would erode away in a few thousand years, therefore, the Earth cannot be millions of years old". When I write out an argument, I'm constantly thinking "what could deflate this whole contraption; what objections can be made?" Not because I want to build "defenses", but rather if such objections are legitimate, they must either be anticipated and met, or the objections are severe, the argument is faulty and should be abandoned. Apparently top-down thinking folks are so eager to get back to their original position (and avoid stepping out onto your bridge) that they don't let themselves understand the point of the argument.

Repetition of known falsehoods is another way to avoid accidentally wandering out onto the bridge. I don't mean that the repeater knows they're false (they haven't fully accepted that) but that the falsehoods have been pointed out to them. I have a great non-religious example: I worked at a small biotech which was developing a certain delivery technology, and there was a nearby competitor company that had similar technology but was maybe 3 quarters ahead in the R&D cycle. Needless to say, people from both companies often ended up at the same conferences and presentations. The "enemy" CEO had a way of dropping subtle marginalizing, condescending words into his presentations - you know, how you can imply things, without making a direct assertion that can be attacked, so that objectors will seem to be nitpicking? One of his favorite tricks was to have (apparently) earnest trouble pronouncing my company's name, as if we were so unimportant that he couldn't be bothered to look it up. My colleagues had corrected him repeatedly. Now had I ever been present, I would have added "Also sir, that's the third time I've corrected you, so either you have memory problems or you're being sneaky, and neither are good CEO traits." Maybe that's why that company didn't send me to conferences. In that guy's case, I'm pretty sure he was deliberately lying. In (for example) Ray Comfort's case, I'll actually give him the benefit of the doubt that it just hurts his head to retain some of these uncomfortable facts that critics keep throwing at him. If I were Ray Comfort, I would study all these things so I could throw them back at my critics and say exactly why they were all wrong.

A rational good-faith discussion (pardon the pun) is like a dance - all parties are there for the same reason and want to end up the same place, even if they don't know exactly where at the start. A bad-faith discussion is like a tug of war across a bridge. You may not win by brute force immediately, but start putting a trail of tasty little treats down on the planks of your bridge - treats that they already like to begin with - and over time you'll get them further and further across.

Now, like a good rationalist you should be asking me for evidence. And that's why this weekend I'm going to put up the deversion poll I've been threatening. I've found that promising things to the atheist community is a good motivator. Remember my little chocolate promise for Yomkipmadanlent? I am currently in the longest (and easiest) chocolate-free phase of my life, thanks to you!

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