Wednesday, May 21, 2014

More about beliefs vs. facts

This article refers to research that makes some progress on the question of how to correct false beliefs. At the same time, reading it renews the concern I discuss here and here. If the article is correct about the reason for the persistence of false beliefs, we should expect that some people hold correct beliefs for the wrong reasons. I.e. if beliefs can be based on something other than facts, then some beliefs will be only coincidentally consistent with facts. These coincidental cases can lead to an unjustified confidence in one's whole process of belief formation. I'm concerned that someone reading the article might reason as follows:
  • Global warming is a problem.
  • I believe that it is a problem.
  • Therefore, I am on the side of truth.
  • Therefore, my beliefs about other things are correct also.
Quite the meta-problem.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Knowledge and the real unicorn

My daughter often talks about alicorns and sometimes pretends to be an alicorn. That's a cross between a pegasus and a unicorn, i.e. a unicorn with wings. So why can't she just be a unicorn with wings? Because unicorns don't have wings, of course. Not real unicorns (according to My Little Pony, that is, and perhaps other sources as well).

Someone who is asked how to kill a vampire will probably say a stake through the heart, and perhaps will mention other methods; but will most likely not qualify the statement with anything like "typically" or "according to the majority of popular sources." When it comes to some of the finer points of vampire mythology, like whether they can survive in sunlight, there is significant disagreement among popular sources (The Hunger: yes; Buffy the Vampire Slayer: no; Twilight: yes, but they prefer to avoid direct sunlight because it makes them glitter conspicuously). It wouldn't be unheard of for vampire geeks to argue about such things without acknowledging that they are really arguing about which mythology is the dominant one, or which mythology each person prefers. Like when I was talking to someone who claimed that "Elvish" and not "Elfish" is the correct way to refer to the language of elves. ("Says who?" I said. "You realize elves aren't real, right?")

Consider, by way of contrast, Sherlock Holmes. He is no more real than unicorns, vampires, or elves, but if you want to know his address, there is a definitive answer. Or at least there is an answer that virtually everyone can agree on, because virtually everyone would agree that Arthur Conan Doyle is the definitive source. This even though there may very well be fan fiction out there in which Holmes lives at 221A Baker Street, or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or wherever. In the same vein, one can confidently claim that J.R.R. Tolkien is the definitive source for information about hobbits. He did invent them, after all. There is much more room for argument about elves (and orcs, and all kinds of other stuff), not least because there won't be universal agreement about what "definitive" even means. (Tolkien also capitalizes the names of these races, but I'm not on board with that. Languages, on the other hand, even made-up ones, should be capitalized, imo.)

Here comes the tortured analogy. Nowadays, knowledge is viewed more like the mythology of vampires or elves than that of Holmes or hobbits. I think that's fair to say. There is good reason to view results of scientific research as authoritative (which is not to say infallible), whereas arguing over whether one non-scientific source is more authoritative than another tends to boil down to declaring allegiance to something--an ideological group, a way of thinking, a set of values, etc. Which is something like claiming that one depiction of vampires (or elves or unicorns) is "right" and another "wrong." Far from a perfect analogy, but what the hell.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

De-politicization of beliefs

An addendum to yesterday's post.

Say there is some issue A, like "climate change is a problem that warrants policy intervention," with which liberals are more likely to agree and conservatives are more likely to disagree (or vice versa). There has been talk of de-politicizing such issues, meaning removing the association of the issue with one ideological group (which may be a matter of detaching the issue from underlying beliefs or values that differ across ideological groups). The presumed benefit of de-politicization is that it would make conservatives more likely to believe A. But at the same time, it would make liberals less likely to believe A. That it is a political issue cuts both ways: it's harder to get some ideological groups on board, easier to get others.

Now, what we really want to accomplish is to get people to believe something because it's actually true. Appealing to reason doesn't seem to be the way to go, its effectiveness being severely limited. Perhaps there is a way to appeal to beliefs or values that are common to many ideological groups--stuff that tends to unite rather than divide people. This  raises the question of whether people adopt beliefs because they want to agree with their own group or because they to want to oppose some other group (about which I wrote a paper). If you argue an issue in a way that is meant to appeal to one's humanity (rather than one's ideology), will that fail because there is no obvious group to which one can be opposed? Does Haidt's "groupishness" have an inherent us-vs-them component? If so--if people need to find something to disagree about--then maybe the thing to do is change the focus of disagreement to something more innocuous. I.e. try to get liberals and conservatives to expend their us-vs-them energies on something that doesn't have such dramatic consequences.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A good point about climate change beliefs, and beliefs in general

Dan Kahan's research deals largely with individuals' adoption of beliefs as a means of identifying with some kind of ideological group: e.g., someone denies that global warming is a problem, not as a result of weighing the evidence but because the person wants to identify with fellow conservatives, who tend to hold that belief. I'm not completely convinced that the mechanism for belief adoption is exactly as Kahan says it is, but it does seem perfectly clear that publicly stated opinions are not always about truth and may not even be based on perceived truth.

Arnold Kling comments on Kahan:
Kahan advises climate worriers to try to engage in public discussion in ways that are less “culturally assaultive.” This assumes that climate worriers care more about climate policy than about asserting their moral and intellectual superiority over conservatives. The most charitable I can be is to say that I am willing to wait and see whether that is the case.
I can put it a bit more charitably: even if the "worriers" are correct, some of them are adopting the right belief for the wrong reason. Kahan focuses on those who deny global warming for the wrong reasons (although he may very well address the flip side somewhere). One might infer from this treatment that everyone who believes in global warming does so for the right reasons, or that it doesn't matter why they think what they do as long as they end up at the correct conclusion. In fact, it is essential to recognize that lots of belief in global warming is poorly founded, and that this is part of what makes the discussion "culturally assaultive." It is a mistake to assume that we can detach the way beliefs are defended in some public arena from the way those beliefs were formed in the first place.

Which is not to say that there isn't some actual truth in the matter. In this case, I really have no doubt that global warming is a problem that warrants action, and I don't think that anyone approaching the issue with even a pretense of objectivity can reasonably claim otherwise. But supporting a reasonable conclusion for the wrong reasons doesn't do any good. I see this kind of thing all the time, with respect to lots of issues. For example, I might agree with someone that having a minimum wage is a good idea, but if someone denies that the efficiency effects even exist, I can't take their opinion very seriously. It becomes a real problem when someone who does not support minimum wage encounters such an opinion. One can then jump to the conclusion that those who support minimum wage don't even understand its effects, avoiding the reasonable discussion that could be had about how severe the inefficiencies created really are and whether it is worth it to create these inefficiencies.

I don't know whether framing public debate this way makes me feel more or less optimistic about the potential for resolving disagreements constructively.