Saturday, January 11, 2014

Wisdom Of The Week

It sounds extremely simplistic but Sean Carroll's new year resolution has lot of wisdom:

Now, the concept of “New Year’s Resolutions” is a pretty awful one. Most people resolve to lose weight or some generic version of being nicer, and most fall off the wagon pretty quickly. A health club I used to go to would display signs in January saying “Regulars: don’t worry about the crowds, most of them will be gone soon.” Not very encouraging, but pretty accurate.

But the idea of resolving to be a better person is a good one, and the beginning of a new year is as good a time as any. So without making an official resolution, this year I’d like to be more like Nelson Mandela.

Not that I’m likely to be lifting any peoples out of oppression or anything so grandiose. My personal stakes are quite a bit lower. But we live in a world where people are constantly disagreeing with each other, taking opposite sides on various issues. And disagreement about important things should be engaged in vociferously; some positions are simply wrong, and sometimes they are wrong in harmful ways. But I want to make more of an effort to treat people I disagree with as fellow human beings, not simply as opponents or enemies. When disagreement occurs, I want to start as much as possible from a position of interpretive charity, imagining that everyone in the conversation is acting in good faith and willing to listen with an open mind. That’s not always the case, but it’s the right default assumption. And it’s one that is really hard to make. There’s an enormous predilection for equating disagreement with bad faith. I disagree with that person, so they are my enemy. It’s an attractive attitude, since I get to imagine that the defense of my beliefs is a lofty moral stance. But giving into that impulse not only sends conversations down a race to the bottom, it weakens my own position. I hold nearly all of my beliefs tentatively, subject to correction in the face of new information or better arguments. To ensure that I have the most accurate beliefs possible, it’s necessary to hear the best objections to them and take them seriously, not take the lazy way out of painting their proponents as bad people.

One of all time favorite papers is Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory by Hugo Mercier University of Neuchatel and Dan Sperber, abstract here:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

No comments: