Full title: Maximizing Our Chance to Learn (A Bit More)
“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.” -Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620)
Earlier, we quoted Bill Bishop’s findings about the “Clustering of Like-minded America” and concerns that this “Big Sort” was actually “tearing us apart.” We also cited Liz Joyner, national director of the Village Square, in a comment that deserves repetition: “We’re increasingly choosing to associate only with our ‘tribe’ rather than bravely disagree face to face. Bunkered up at home with information sources that serve as a virtual amen chorus for everything we want to believe, we can’t seem to tolerate the people we used to share town meetings with.”
In this conversation about gay rights (as with many other topics), our experience is that in 90-95% of instances, it’s people talking with other people who agree with them. Although seeking reinforcement and support from like-minded souls is clearly not a problem, when that’s virtually all we do…problems arise.
Take Facebook groups, for example – aggregations of people who have come together around some passionately-held central commonality or commitment (whether on the Right or Left). While there is a relief and excitement in meeting others that think like us, how many of us have watched over time how interactions between those like-minded souls can concentrate all the so-called evidence of one’s rightness in one place – resulting in a feeding frenzy that incessantly confirms our rightness (while, of course, supporting their wrongness)…just what we were inclined to believing. How convenient!
This is not a new thing. Long before the echo-chamber of Facebook groups blessed our lives, Francis Bacon observed hundreds of years ago:
The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate (Novum Organum, 1620)
Scientists now call this “confirmation or confirmatory bias” (or “myside bias”), defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.” Studies have found that the effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs – where our tendency is to confirm our existing beliefs or perform “tests” that are one-sided and which subtly prioritize one perspective and diverting our attention away from alternatives. Even when two people have been exposed to the “same evidence,” disagreement often becomes more extreme based on selective interpretation and emphasis within the evidence.
Interestingly enough, both sides (and all sides) in a given hot topic typically do this! Whoever or whenever it happens, though, it can be problematic.
Especially when we haven’t yet attained to Omniscience – and still have more to learn. How will that happen in a community that never questions or challenges us?
In other words, how exactly are we going to learn anything new while living in silos – or find out what more we have to understand? (or limitations to our current awareness)
Our answer: we won’t. Not if we stay-home-in-the-silos!
So how do we combat such a strong psychological tendency? What methods are the best “confirmatory-bias-busters”?
Comparing methods to overcome confirmation bias. As much as randomized-controlled trials (RCT) and other structured scientific studies are held up as the gold standard for overcoming bias and surfacing insight, closer inspection reveals another story.
As the author of an RCT myself, I can tell you one thing for sure: they are messier than they look.
As reviewed in the last chapter, there are 100 ways that personal biases can influence the conception, design, execution, documentation and analysis of any given study – including the most controlled of the lot.
So instead of pretending to be outside of the influence of human bias, what if we just acknowledged those biases – and brought them into an open and transparent exploration, side by side?
Dialogue as insight-generating method. The authors of this text believe that open-hearted, open-minded dialogue is among the best “methods” for revealing more insight, understanding, awareness and yes, the (full or more complete) truth of the matter…
This doesn’t happen simply by establishing THE truth to all present in the room. Instead, dialogue invites us all to dig a little deeper – reach a little broader, and challenge our own assumptions (even as we invite others to inquire) – collectively inviting us together to inch towards THE truth (or A truth) – however incremental our progress.
The benefits of these kinds of “treasonous friendships,” then, are more than just touchy feely – and have everything to do about whether we can learn anything from our differences.
We want people (ourselves included) to have the highest possibility and likelihood of discovering what the truth of the matter – any matter, all matters – really is. Clearly, whatever issue we’re talking about, we’re going to disagree on what ‘the truth’ is (and whether it even exists). But even then, perhaps we may agree generally about healthier (or less healthy) processes for helping us approximate that truth, decrease error, multiply insight and expand collective wisdom.
If nothing else, an open dialogue space exposes ourselves to others’ (best) ideas and (most compelling) arguments and (most precious) values in a way that we might just actually hear and give them a fair hearing.
In the process, we come to see our own passionately held convictions and ideas as, yes, one way of thinking – alongside others that do exist. This chance to consider our own narratives and interpretations (as narratives and interpretations) allows us to ‘test’ our ideas – and decide what we really believe.
While welcoming participants to hold their truth claims with equal passion at the beginning and end of a dialogue, this space and process does give participants (all of us) an opportunity for movement: growing more convicted in something – or less…or taking on another angle or perspective entirely.
Is that scary? Or refreshing? How does this compare with going about our lives surrounded by faces and Face-less comments that only confirm and affirm what we already know.
Could that be the scary thing?
Bottom line: If we’re wrong – goodness gracious – give us the greatest possible chance of seeing it. For any of us, surely we’ll be less likely to ever find our own blind-spots if we’re living in a self-reinforcing echo chamber.
For example, if a social conservative individual is mistaken in some basic assumptions (and ever has a chance of seeing that), we believe this will best happen within dialogue – at his/her own pace and time. Likewise, if a transgender individual is mistaken in some basic assumptions (and ever has a chance of seeing that), we believe this will best happen within dialogue – at his/her own pace and time.
Beyond respect for others’ beliefs. Notice how different this is than the typical insistence that we “validate” or “respect” others’ beliefs.
In a previous conversation we had, Arthur asked, “should people’s space to explore and identify with something less than the whole truth be respected?” (His answer follows – broadened since we both agree).
From a conservative point of view: should a self-affirming gay couple’s identification with their sexuality be respected…without the conservatives caring about the effect the gay couple will have on their children (either adopted or natural), or without caring about the effect they will have on public education as they apply pressure to have their kind of family reflected in the school curriculum and in the school community in general?
From a liberal point of view: should a conservative family’s rejection of gay marriage be respected…without the liberals caring about the effect that will have on gay people who want to get married, or the effect that will have on gay couple’s children and the school community as they apply pressure to keep gay marriage from being normalized?
We would argue that it is impossible to “respect” other people’s beliefs when they impinge negatively on someone else.
Furthermore, we would argue that we are all exploring and identifying with something less than the whole truth. Hence the wisdom in compassion, humility, open-mindedness, consideration, etc. But those values must be brought to bear upon the discernment process, and the political process, and the social process…not offered as some kind of alternative to the battle of ideas.
There can be no stasis, no neutral live and let live, no tolerance, since we are all affecting each other by our beliefs and the actions that follow from them. The truth battle then, we think, should be one of debate, conversation, dialogue, and not violence or physical force. But almost anything important touches upon society and the laws of society in some way, so at some point “force” (the force of law) must be used to enforce the views of whichever side ultimately wins
In all of this, we personally don’t see the goal as accommodating “both.” Rather, we see the goal as that of moving towards the whole truth (with whatever consequences that might hold for either, or both, positions).
As popular as it is to simply “live and let live,” as we wrote in an earlier chapter – this falls apart in practice (partly because we are interdependent and there is no real possibility of our not affecting each other)
The idea of respecting each others’ beliefs as a worthwhile goal in and of itself is also not sufficient, since our beliefs necessarily affect other people, and therefore there can be no neutrality. A conservative’s belief that homosexual behavior is a barrier to relationship with God will affect how that conservative votes, how that conservative raises his children, how that conservative speaks and interacts with gay people, etc. Of course, the reverse is true as well: a liberal’s affirmation of the inherent goodness of a gay person’s sexual orientation will affect how that liberal votes, raises his children, interacts with gay people (and with conservatives), etc. etc.
In our opinion, we are therefore stuck with the imperative of moving towards the whole truth (whatever that might be), and we are stuck with doing this together, since that is our existential predicament: we are together.
While compassion for the people involved in this engagement and inquiry is always an option along the way (and we would generally advocate for it – though not always), there can, in our opinion, ultimately no compromise on the level of ideas, cultural understanding, conceptions, or normative meaning frames.
Take a few more examples: A Mormon man with same sex attraction (SSA) – whether he is opting for the conservative accommodation with his church’s teaching or whether he is choosing to either leave his church or eke out a space for himself within the church as a self-affirming gay man – such a man is merely embodying the social contradictions that are being worked out collectively. Compassion for him, and compassion for the people threatened by his choice, is probably the only option if we are to break through the multiple layers of inauthenticity which lie between us and the whole truth. But to me it doesn’t make sense to speak of “respecting” his sense of identity (whatever that might be). Respecting his right to try to be happy as best he can – of course. But respecting his actual choices, or his ideas, about what his happiness involves – no, that makes no sense to me.
I don’t think we can understand the problem confronting us – the collective problem embodied individually by the Mormon individual with SSA – by seeking some kind of mere tolerance, or even genuine heart-felt tolerance, for the different positions people take regarding this, anymore than we can seek tolerance for the different ideas people have about climate change, or the different ideas people have about immigration, or capitalism, etc.
The truth matters. Anything less than the whole truth should never be respected. It should be challenged. Even as we recognize the need for humility and compassion in our search for that whole truth together.
Our mutual friend with SSA, by choosing to go public with his choice to affirm the Mormon church’s teachings on homosexuality, is inevitably affecting everyone else in the world, especially those most personally affected by the question, e.g. Mormon children with SSA who are watching him, other men with SSA, families and friends of those persons, the institutions either for or against self-affirming homosexual behavior , the political system which has to decide these things, etc.
So also, another man’s decision to openly declare his identity to be gay is also inevitably affecting everyone else around him. Both personal choices have very real public consequences…life and death consequences in many cases.
And that, again, underscores our interest in this project.
Dialogue as freedom-expanding method. More than simply an intellectual limitation of constraining our capacity to ‘see new ideas,’ the restrictions become very practical as our freedom to choose other possibilities literally shrinks.
As long as we’re stuck in our own story – without a compelling awareness of others, simply put: there are limited possibilities ahead (namely, those in your head!). And this, in turn, can have substantial consequences for our real lives, since we don’t just tell stories – we live them!
That’s one of the big motivators for both Jacob and Arthur in this writing. To invite, advocate and call for more spaces where we expose ourselves to the best thinking of our ‘adversaries.’ By juxtaposing contrasting ideas in the best possible light, we hope to jump-start those kind of conversations….
That, again, is why we write. It’s been Jacob’s motivation in all his years of mental health work – from contrasting Prozac narratives to recovery narratives to successful outcome narratives. It’s been Arthur’s motivation in his years of exploring religious authority claims from a critical perspective. And it’s why they are both working on the Red Blue Dictionary (now called the All Sides Dictionary) with a fantastic group of collaborators – and other related dialogue efforts.
It’s about Freedom. Of exploring ideas. And exploring life possibilities.
That’s another motivation in this work.
 Research, for instance, shows increasing polarization happening within like-minded conversations. For example, group members of the same nationality who start out by disapproving of the US, and are suspicious of its intentions, will end up with greater disapproval and suspicion after they exchange points of view. Roger Brown, Social Psychology: The Second Edition (New York: Free Press, 1986), 206–207.
Arthur writes, “the fault lines of the culture war run straight through my heart. And I find I have no choice but to seek dialogic bridges over those fault lines, in order to heal my own fractured soul…and maybe, just maybe, even get a glimpse of some real truth.”