Friday, March 24, 2017

Why you're wrong and I'm right


Human reason and language probably evolved to enable
moving up and down the totem pole non-violently.
The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight.

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds - The New Yorker

This is an good article with summary discussions about why it is true, as the old saying goes, "You can't reason someone out of a position he was never reasoned into."

And for that matter, you usually can't reason people out of a position they were reasoned into, either. What research shows is that once someone adopts a position on a topic, no matter how rigorously, logically and factually it may have been supported  -- once that position is adopted, abandoning or even modifying it in the face of new facts is unlikely.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford. For this experiment, researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.
I find this a very interesting part of the article, especially since in denouncing confirmation bias as a productive or desirable part of human reasoning, the author, Pulitzer laureate Elizabeth Kolbert, several times openly displays her own confirmation bias when she attempts (poorly) to show how the last election's outcome was an excellent example of all that is faulty and deficient in human reasoning - because the wrong person won, which anyone of sound mind would know.
“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.
Nope, no confirmation bias there, nothing to see, move along now.

More seriously, though, is the tagline at the top of this post, "The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight."

... reason evolved ... to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.
Of course, human reason language evolved together, first to communicate facts, then as social reinforcement. Of course social standing is important for human beings - why else would Facebook be the way it is? - but in most anthropoids (i.e., gorillas, chimps and baboons) it is at least as important. What they do not have is language (they do have a small vocabulary of meaningful gestures). As a result, status and standing are settled by violence or its threat. Male baboons spend every minute of every day doing one of these things: sleeping, eating, getting food, competing for status before females for mating privileges, or awaiting the opportunity to do one of these. Of them nothing surpasses status in importance, and baboon fights are really rough.


What human language did was allow these fights to transition from physical to verbal, protecting men (women competed in other ways) from injury or death. In turn, that increased the fighting and physical strength of the tribal group to fend off attackers, hunt more successfully, and deal with natural emergencies. Of course, fights between men didn't entirely vanish, but the conditions under which they took place became tightly defined, leading to the rise of honor-shame social systems, which deligitimizes personal violence under most circumstances but can actually require it under others. Which is to say, there is a strict sociality governing human conduct that baboons don't have.

Hence, reason and language both caused and required human self-control that our closest relatives, such as chimps and baboons, do not have. Luckily (I guess) they enabled men and women to get their way by subterfuge rather than violence. As Psychology Today notes,

First, much of what we call interpersonal crime today, such as murder, assault, robbery, and theft, were probably routine means of intrasexual male competition in the ancestral environment.  This is how men likely competed for resources and mating opportunities for much of human evolutionary history.  They beat up and killed each other, and they stole from each other if they could get away with it.

We may infer this from the fact that behavior that would be classified as criminal if engaged in by humans, like murder, rape, assault, and theft, are quite common among other species.  The criminologist Lee Ellis documented many instances of these “criminal behavior” among different species with photographs in 1998.  The primatologist Frans de Waal and his colleagues have documented brutal murders, assaults, and other interpersonal violence among chimpanzees, bonobos, and capuchin monkeys.
And as the article points out, "Criminologists have long known that criminals on average have lower intelligence than the general population... ." Which may be a way of saying that smart people figure out how to skirt the law rather than break it.
There is a clear relationship between overall intelligence and breadth of vocabulary, but the point is that this is not just one of those curious signalling features but relates to the power of thought itself.  If you can make a distinction between two things that may superficially appear the same but are actually very different in nature, that gives you the scope for tremendously increased power when formulating concepts and understanding these phenomena.

Clear language = clear thinking = power.
It is crucial to remember that language and reason did not evolve under conditions remotely similar to our own. The human brain became modern about 60,000 years ago. Doubtless this had an enormous influence over development of human reason and language (and vice-versa) but even so, it took 50,000 years after that to begin farming. Why so long?
One answer is that the purpose of inventing agriculture was intentionally to mass-produce alcoholic beverages. Agriculture is a fixed-base activity and many historians think that civilization (permanent towns and highly-ordered political structure) were developed to protect it. But why start such a fixed-base activity? Well, maybe beer gave us civilization.
[F]from time to time, our ancestors, like other animals, would run across fermented fruit or grain and sample it. How this accidental discovery evolved into the first keg party, of course, is still unknown. But evolve it did, perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago.

Current theory has it that grain was first domesticated for food. But since the 1950s, many scholars have found circumstantial evidence that supports the idea that some early humans grew and stored grain for beer, even before they cultivated it for bread.

Brian Hayden and colleagues at Simon Fraser University in Canada provide new support for this theory in an article published this month (and online last year) in the Journal of Archeological Method and Theory. Examining potential beer-brewing tools in archaeological remains from the Natufian culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, the team concludes that “brewing of beer was an important aspect of feasting and society in the Late Epipaleolithic” era.

Anthropological studies in Mexico suggest a similar conclusion: there, the ancestral grass of modern maize, teosinte, was well suited for making beer — but was much less so for making corn flour for bread or tortillas. It took generations for Mexican farmers to domesticate this grass into maize, which then became a staple of the local diet.
What does that have to do with higher-order thinking, reasoning, and language? Large-scale brewing and fermentation required inventing all kinds of new things - simple machines, accurate measuring, ways to keep records and organizing armies to protect foodstuffs and trade routes.Nonetheless, tribalism and "in-thinking" has never disappeared from human societies. Indeed, in most of the land area of the earth, tribalism is the most powerful social ordering there is. Case in point: the Middle East. In 2007 I sat at table in Jericho with a man named Bassem Eid, right, the founder and manager of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. He documented the human-rights violations of the Palestinian Authority inside the West Bank as head of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

He was arrested by the PA in the 1990s, but was held only a day. The fact that his tribe is the largest in the West Bank - and therefore has the most muscle to retaliate against anyone who might harm him - is almost certainly the only reason he is still breathing.

Tribalism has been a grappling opponent of the three great monotheistic religions from their beginnings. Hebrews and Jews had to cope with it, although Judaism tried to harness it (read the land allocations by tribe in Deuteronomy) rather than suppress it. Christianity more or less dismissed tribalism altogether (unsuccessfully) by insisting, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3.28). This ideal has never been achieved.

Muhammed tried to make Islamic devotion the "super tribe" before which all other social-group distinctions would fade away as Muslims spread Islamic reign across the globe. It failed, too. While Islam is the main way Arab societies are oriented (not a claim that can be made for non-Arab Muslim lands), tribalism is of intense importance. The ongoing violence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are not only tribal conflicts, but they are tribal conflicts. Shia Islam began as a tribal movement about who was the rightful successor to Muhammed based on kinship to him and to this day Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims despise one another, though they differ not a hair's width in what Islam's tenets are.

My point is that tribal groupings have from earliest human history been the main way that human beings have organized themselves. And it should be no surprise than reason and language evolved in ways that rely heavily on sociality and group appeal rather than just facts and logic. With that in mind, now you understand Facebook and why, especially in modern American politics, tribal (party) affinity overrules almost everything else.

There was a time  - and it was a long time - when even opposing tribal groups agreed that certain truths bound them even across tribal lines, even in times of inter-tribal violence. That time is rapidly coming to an end. Language has always been used for group-signaling (aka, "virtue signaling") but is being amplified with instantaneous social media because, as the UK's Spectator puts it, "Saying the right things violently on Twitter is much easier than real kindness" - which means saying the things that will cement your place and status among the tribe you either belong to or want to belong to.

Mishal Husain was particularly aggressive to Nigel Farage on the Today programme recently, interrupting him mid-sentence, insinuating that he is racist or that, even if he isn’t, his membership is. She would doubtless like to believe that she was being tough but fair. But another force within her was stronger. Mishal was ‘virtue signalling’ indirectly — indicating that she has the right, approved, liberal media-elite opinions, one of which is despising Ukip and thus, most importantly, advertising that she is not racist. When she later goes to a dinner party attended by other members of the media elite, she will be welcomed and approved for having displayed the approved, virtuous views.
And that is why that all the macro-talk of many decades past of the "brotherhood of man" was merely high-minded and idealistic rather than even remotely achievable. At the micro level of the way individuals reason with and interact with and listen to and speak to others, there is no such thing even conceptually as a brotherhood of man. There is only one's tribe and attitudes toward everyone else range from friendliness to tolerance to dismissal to hostility to actual combat. And which it shall be is a form of virtue signaling as well.

Of course, we may belong to multiple tribes. When I was serving in the Army there was a significant number of black NCOs and a few black officers who had been and still were members of what the media were calling "street gangs" of the inner city. I am a retired Army officer and a United Methodist cleric and consider myself a member of both tribes. (I wrote not long ago that the UMC is becoming so severely tribal that the United Methodist Church is in habit and thinking more and more Upper Middle Class. (See, "How we perish in Paradise" from last September.)

I'll give the last word here to Elizabeth Kolbert. 

In “Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us” (Oxford), Jack Gorman, a psychiatrist, and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public-health specialist, probe the gap between what science tells us and what we tell ourselves. Their concern is with those persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous. Of course, what’s hazardous is not being vaccinated; that’s why vaccines were created in the first place. “Immunization is one of the triumphs of modern medicine,” the Gormans note. But no matter how many scientific studies conclude that vaccines are safe, and that there’s no link between immunizations and autism, anti-vaxxers remain unmoved.
Which she immediately blames on Donald Trump, because, hey, her New York circles demand it and she wants to be "welcomed and approved for having displayed the approved, virtuous views" that they expect.

When reason and language are divorced from the transcendent, they become devoted to exercising power. It is not an improvement.


Update: The outlook is not bright: "Why College Graduates Still Can’t Think."

Traditionally, the “critical” part of the term “critical thinking” has referred not to the act of criticizing, or finding fault, but rather to the ability to be objective. “Critical,” in this context, means “open-minded,” seeking out, evaluating and weighing all the available evidence. It means being “analytical,” breaking an issue down into its component parts and examining each in relation to the whole. 
Above  all, it means “dispassionate,” recognizing when and how emotions influence judgment and having the mental discipline to distinguish between subjective feelings and objective reason—then prioritizing the latter over the former.

I wrote about all this in a recent post on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website, mostly as background for a larger point I was trying to make. I assumed that virtually all the readers would agree with this definition of critical thinking—the definition I was taught as a student in the 1980s and which I continue to use with my own students.

To my surprise, that turned out not to be the case. Several readers took me to task for being “cold” and “emotionless,” suggesting that my understanding of critical thinking, which I had always taken to be almost universal, was mistaken.

I found that puzzling, until one helpful reader clued me in: “I share your view of what critical thinking should mean,” he wrote. “But a quite different operative definition has a strong hold in academia. In this view, the key characteristic of critical thinking is opposition to the existing ‘system,’ encompassing political, economic, and social orders, deemed to privilege some and penalize others. In essence, critical thinking is equated with political, economic, and social critique.”