Saturday 31 March 2018

Motivated reasoning and the root cause of intellectual intolerance

To anyone who has been paying attention to issues of free speech and radical liberalism in places such as the US (and increasingly in most Western countries) - particularly on US college campuses - an intriguing and troubling trend has become increasingly evident in recent years, to an extent I have hitherto struggled to fully understand. Acrimonious and often violent opposition (particularly at the hands of the ironically-named ANTIFA - an 'anti-fascist' activist group happy to use fascist means to support their cause) to many conservative viewpoints seeking to counter the liberal consensus, has found expression, with speakers often being forcibly de-platformed.

It has also resulted in many of these speakers, whose ranks include Jordan Peterson; Ben Shapiro; Charles Murray; Steve Pinker; and James Damore (who was fired by Google because of his views - something I have blogged about in the past), to name but a few, being frequently labelled 'alt-right' or even neo-Nazi (something Ben Shapiro has recently been called, despite the fact that he is Jewish).

Proponents of free speech argue that diverse or dissenting views should be tolerated, if not encouraged. However, opponents argue that free speech does not extend to 'hate speech', and they argue that these speakers are doing little more than stirring up hate, prejudice, and racism. Because these speakers are believed to be mostly merchants of hate, opponents feel not only entitled to forcibly de-platform them - even through violent means - but also feel noble in doing so.

To the extent they were right in their premise that these speakers are engaging in neo-Nazi 'hate speech', that position would be somewhat understandable; I'm a fervent supporter of free speech, but even I'm not sure I would be comfortable with something like a convention denying the holocaust being allowed to take place; free speech arguably does have some limits. However, I have listened to/read the works of the putative alt-right neo-Nazis listed above, and although I do not uniformally agree with everything they say, they are very very far from pushing any alt-right or hateful ideology, in my interpretation.

Indeed, in most cases, they are doing little more than presenting data-driven viewpoints that are often accepted as well-supported perspectives in the hard science departments (especially biology, genetics, and evopsyche), so I have been somewhat bemused by the vitriol many have received, and felt grave injustices were being done to these folks' reputations (Peterson, on account of his eloquence and charisma, has managed to prevail over a lot of the rebuke; other folks such as Murray and Damore have been less fortunate). You may disagree with them, but calling them Nazis? And why does no one ever respond to their actual arguments? I simply couldn't understand it.

However, a penny recently dropped about the origins of this visceral opposition when I was listening to a Sam Harris podcast (I highly recommend Sam Harris' 'Waking Up' podcast) with a former (and reformed) white supremacist Christian Picciolini, who now campaigns against the movement. The epiphany came when Christian started labeling many of the above folk - including James Damore - as alt-right as well - a position that is fairly clearly false from what I have read/seen of Damore. When I realised why he was making this mistake, the source of the left's intolerance became a lot clearer.

It seems to me that the fundamental issue is this: The vast majority of the world engages in what is perhaps best described as 'motivated reasoning'. With motivated reasoning, people pick a conclusion first - generally one they would like to be true; one that is emotionally gratifying; and/or one that is intuitively appealing, and then subsequently find reasons to justify that comfortable conclusion. Conclusions are like 'teams' - you pick your team, based on what you would like to be true and what you would like to believe, and then you go to bat for that team. It's a bit like advocacy in a court room - you try to win your case for your client, rather than determine what is objectively true. This process is to a large extent subconscious, and occurs because most people are unable or unwilling to engage in 'meta-cognition', where they understand and correct for their own cognitive biases/fallibility.

This approach is also encouraged by various post-modernist and social constructionist ideas that are now rampant in liberal academic circles, that claim that truth is mostly relative and a matter of opinion, rather than based on any sort of objective truth, and that outcomes in our society are mostly dictated by social construction/culture rather than biology (e.g. the fact that women still play a larger role in caring for infants is a societal choice rather than biological). Because nothing is objectively true and we can chose to construct our society however we want to free of any biological constraints, one is therefore justified in picking conclusions about how the world is and ought to be that are in conformance with one's ideals (and personal interests).

One of the outcomes of this way of thinking is that it is natural to assume that everyone else you debate with is also engaging in motivated reasoning: i.e. that they have also picked their conclusions and 'team' first because they want those conclusions to be true, and are finding reasons to justify those conclusions for their own ends. To this way of thinking, if you are advocating an idea rooted in biology, such as James Damore's argument that fundamental biological differences in gender preferences may partly account for the over/under-representation of women in certain fields (such as coding), then what you are really heard to be saying is the following: 'I want it to be true that more men are good coders because I am a man, and I'm going to find a bunch of arguments to justify my prejudice'. People don't hear (or care) about the arguments themselves. All they hear or see is (putatively) veiled prejudice. They focus only on the conclusion (ignoring the reasoning), and assume it is chosen out of convenience rather than as an emergent outcome of objective analysis.

Another example would be if someone argued that the 'black lives matter' narrative is contradicted by the data (black cops are actually statistically more likely to kill blacks than white cops; and police killings of blacks are below what models would predict based on other inputs vs. other ethnicities), what the activist left hears is not the substance of the argument itself, but the following: 'I don't believe in black lives matter because I'm white and I don't care about black deaths; and I'm just going to throw up some numbers to support that view because I want it to be true'.

One of the reasons the waters get so muddied is that there are also genuine alt-right/neo-Nazis out there that do engage in motivated reasoning in exactly the same way that ANTIFA and other left wing activists do (as noted, the majority of the world does - that's what the majority of human beings seem hard-wired to do). Genuine alt-right/neo-Nazi's also use motivated reasoning and are liable to also selectively grab - when and only when convenient - whatever arguments they can find to justify their racist ideologies, and those arguments sometimes include data-driven arguments made in good faith by academics such as Charles Murray for well-meaning reasons. When this happens, the views of these academics get misrepresented, politicised, and unfairly associated with alt-right perspectives, and these free thinkers' reputations and motivations are unjustly defamed. 

Christian (unwittingly) helped me to understand these dynamics on the podcast when he (falsely) accused people such as James Damore of being 'alt-right'. He came from a world where as a white supremacist, they would grab whatever arguments suited their agenda - whether it be arguments around globalisation, immigration, or racial differences, amongst others. They didn't care about whether these arguments were true - they only cared about corralling whatever half-baked arguments they could find that supported their hateful ideology. To Christian's current mind, therefore, anyone making conservative arguments about limiting immigration/globalisation/trade, or pointing to gender/race differences must have an alt-right agenda, because to his mind, that is the only plausible reason why such arguments would be made. (It also became clear that the meaning of words such as 'globalisation' carry/trigger very different connotations in the minds of some people to others, which can also do little other than promote significant misunderstanding).

Unfortunately, what Christian is doing here - which is symptomatic of the broader phenomenon of de-platforming referenced above - is egregiously conflating two different things: genuine data-driven insights that yield uncomfortable/counter-intuitive truths that counter liberal narratives, and the selective misuse of certain of these arguments for a motivated/politicised alt-right agenda.

Contrary to what Christian seems to believe, there is actually another very important reason why people such as Damore might seek to argue that genuine biological gender differences exist - there may in fact be a strong argument to be made borne of objective empirical data that they are true.

Some people (a much misunderstood minority, of which I count myself as one) care more about truth than what is popular or in their own best interests, and some of those folk are brave enough to be prepared to express it. In other words, there are a minority of people that do not engage in motivated reasoning. But because they are a minority, they are often misunderstood and have unsavory ulterior motives imputed to them that simply do not exist, and this, I believe, is the root cause of a lot of the unjustified criticism people such as Damore have been suffering from. Ironically, it is actually people such as Damore that have been the victims of genuine oppression, intolerance, and bigotry - the exact opposite of what is claimed.

The people most caught in the cross-fire at present are independent thinkers that engage in a scientific method of thinking (namely, where one sets aside preconceived notions; questions assumptions and beliefs constantly; collects and analyses representative data; and then lets the data point to the conclusion, which is accepted irrespective of what is wanted, needed, convenient, or intuitive), and who are also operating in fields of study where outcomes/truths are sometimes uncomfortable and not in conformance with prevailing SJW (social justice warrior) political narratives. I am fortunate to operate in an area - stock market investing - where being a contrarian, independent thinker pays, but others such as Damore and Murray are not so fortunate. In the politicised domains in which they reside, being a contrarian - even if you're right - can get you fired and defamed.

The scientific method of thinking is difficult and unnatural to most people. It requires a high level of abstract and data-driven thinking (to uncover and acknowledge counter-intuitive truths), rather than the narrative- and anecdote-driven thinking that comes more naturally to people; and it requires one to put aside preconceived notions and one's own personal interest in the higher pursuit of truth.

These are people of high integrity, and their views and opinions should be accorded the highest level of respect and appreciation in society when they speak of their findings. Instead, these people are increasingly being unfairly maligned because it is being assumed that the arguments they are making derive purely from an ideology/agenda, rather than objective data. And because a cherry-picking of some of their findings is sometimes misused by the alt-right to advance their ideology/agenda, their motivations and personhood are being badly misrepresented.

This is not only a real injustice to people like Peterson, Damore, Shapiro, and Charles Murray, but it also reflects a growing erosion of the primacy of science, reason, and evidence-based empiricism in our policymaking and public dialogue. This is a real problem. As a society, we need to learn to accept and assimilate inconvenient and uncomfortable truths if we are to solve problems and make the world better instead of worse. In order to solve a problem, you have to properly understand it, and ideologically-driven rather than data-driven dialogue is a major obstacle to both.

What needs to change

In my opinion, two things need to change if we are to improve our public discourse. The first is, we need to stop assuming that someone who is advocating a particular argument is doing so merely because they want that conclusion to be true. What needs to be critiqued is not the motivation of the advocate, but the substance of the arguments themselves. Even if the the advocate is engaging in motivated reasoning, a debunking of that person's argument needs to critique the substance of the arguments themselves, not the person. Motivations are irrelevant to truth. Fact-based discourse and debate is needed. Reasonable people can disagree on complex issues. That's fine. People need not all hold the same view. But arguments need to be debated, not putative motivations, and we need to start habitually calling people out for attacking the person rather than the argument.

The second thing that needs to change is there needs to be a much broader recognition of the fact that many truths are deeply counter-intuitive. The fact that something feels true to you does not mean it is actually true. Once upon a time, it was intuitive that the world was flat - it seemed self-evidently so. The scientific method has been developed as a counter to human beings' often-flawed intuitions: it demands more than mere belief/intuition, and instead insists on empirically testable data and falsifiable predictions. And it requires mental flexibility; a willingness to revise views in response to new findings/data; and a recognition that reality is not always as we would prefer it or in conformance with our ideals. Uncomfortable truths exist, and we need to be prepared to accept them.

It is sometimes easy to despair in the face of the degree of folly we witness in the world. However, surprising as it may seem in the face of humanity's widespread psychological frailties and propensity for irrationality, the world has actually been getting better over time, and the forces of reason and empirical-based science have generally been winning (albeit slowly and painfully). Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" spoke of how widespread denial and violent opposition usually precedes something being accepted as self-evident truth. Human beings/societies, it seems, change their minds slowly, but in free societies at least, they do eventually change their minds.

This legacy of progress cannot and should not be taken for granted, but it does provide a counter to the despair one might otherwise succumb to. Bad ideas have been with humanity for time immemorial, and yet courageous and intelligent people have successfully fought vested interests and the forces of motivated reasoning and irrationally for many centuries, and the world is a better place because of it. It is essential, however, that the institution of free speech be preserved. It behooves us to continue to this tradition, and fight for truth, justice, and the sustenance of hard-won civil liberties - most importantly of all freedom of speech - the only non-violent way to beat bad ideas. The radical left has been winning many battles of late, but I am optimistic they will eventually lose the war.