October 22nd, 2009

in motion

(no subject)

Been thinking about communication lately, and forms of discourse, and political debate. Good article in the Atlantic last month about the intractability of our entrenched beliefs, and how we can hold onto them even in the face of evidence to the contrary -- sometimes especially in the face of that evidence:

...In other words, if people start with a particular opinion or view on a subject, any counter-evidence can create "cognitive dissonance"--discomfort caused by the presence of two irreconcilable ideas in the mind at once. One way of resolving the dissonance would be to change or alter the originally held opinion. But the researchers found that many people instead choose to change the conflicting evidence--selectively seeking out information or arguments that support their position while arguing around or ignoring any opposing evidence, even if that means using questionable or contorted logic.

That's not a news flash to anyone who's paid attention to any recent national debate--although the researchers pointed out that this finding, itself, runs counter to the idea that the reason people continue to hold positions counter to all evidence is because of misinformation or lack of access to the correct data. Even when presented with compelling, factual data from sources they trusted, many of the subjects still found ways to dismiss it. But the most interesting (or disturbing) aspect of the Northwestern study was the finding that providing additional counter-evidence, facts, or arguments actually intensified this reaction. Additional countering data, it seems, increases the cognitive dissonance, and therefore the need for subjects to alleviate that discomfort by retreating into more rigidly selective hearing and entrenched positions. [emphasis mine]

The article concludes with this rather poetic way of looking at the problem:

Part of the reason, according to Kleiman, is "the brute fact that people identify their opinions with themselves; to admit having been wrong is to have lost the argument, and (as Vince Lombardi said), every time you lose, you die a little." And, he adds, "there is no more destructive force in human affairs--not greed, not hatred--than the desire to have been right."

[...]He points to the philosopher Karl Popper, who, he says, believed fiercely in the discipline and teaching of critical thinking, because "it allows us to offer up our opinions as a sacrifice, so that they die in our stead."

A liberal education, Kleiman says, "ought, above all, to be an education in non-attachment to one's current opinions. I would define a true intellectual as one who cares terribly about being right, and not at all about having been right."

Such a subtle distinction there, the difference between being right and having been right, and such a vital one. Go read it.


Via io9, this brief article on some studies at Stanford, about the circumstances in which people are most comfortable voicing their opinions. Nothing too surprising here: people are loudest when they believe their statements reflect the majority opinion, and people holding extreme views tend to speak out more than those with more moderate views. Still essential stuff to consider, in light of the social/cultural divisions that come about when people form identity within communities who (seem to) share their politics.

“You have a cycle that feeds on itself: the more you hear these extremists expressing their opinions, the more you are going to believe that those extreme beliefs are normal for your community.”

And finally: a short video blog by Penn Jillette that I found really moving.

"I sat on TV, while my hero Tommy Smothers yelled in my face how pissed off he was at me for appearing on Glenn Beck. It broke my heart."

"I've just always thought that the answer to bad speech was more speech."