Wednesday, January 2, 2019

On Arguing Facts

It never ceases to amaze me how often I'll be writing or thinking about something, and then the perfect articles drop in my lap. It might help that I've been scrolling through social media endlessly on my days off!

In my prior post, I discussed the need for teachers to step up and actively dismantle arguments based on a mistaken premise or altogether unfounded assumption rather than heed concerns about the self-esteem of our charges or other potential ramification born by speaking our mind, and then I hit this Aeon article from October.

Sam Dresser suggests, in cases of deep disagreement where the foundational principles are so radically different (like climate change and homeopathy), that it might not be the case that our opponent is illogical or ignorant, but it's perhaps more likely that people holding contentious beliefs have developed arguments that insulate them from evidence to the contrary.
"We are used to the idea that respectfully accommodating the views of fellow citizens, whose intelligence and sincerity is not in doubt, requires some degree of moderation on our part. We cannot, it seems, both fully respect others, regard them as intelligent and sincere, and still be fully convinced that we are right and they are completely wrong, unless we simply agree to disagree. But on a societal level we cannot do that, since ultimately some decision must be made."
Then he explains why some believe questionable claims so strongly:
"Factual beliefs can therefore become markers for cultural identities: by asserting your belief that climate change is a myth, you signal your allegiance to a particular moral, cultural and ideological community. This might in part be the psychological dynamic that drives the polarisation over climate, and similar mechanisms might have a role in other politicised social disagreements. This affects how we can reasonably react to societal disagreement about facts. Asserting facts is not simple: it is often a way of signalling broader religious, moral or political allegiance. This makes it harder for us to fully respect our fellow citizens when we disagree over factual matters."
This addresses part of my concern with dismantling claims that are so obviously unfounded when working with teenagers under my care. It's not going to merely show them the light. They won't just accept the facts and move on. It's seen as an attack on their identity as a believer of a claim. Instead of just feeling it's my place to correct mistakes, it's taken as a correction of their self. Often, with teens, that group identity is enmeshed with family, so it's possibly an attack on their parents as well. There's a conflict here between a teacher innocuously explaining a right answer, since it's clearly a matter of facts, and a teacher questioning or attempting to affect a person's very identity, what they choose to believe and hold dear.

Another debate I've fielded recently is around the refugee crisis in the U.S. Some people go down this line of reasoning,

But that misses that there's a mistake in the original argument easily corrected: There's nothing illegal about seeking asylum. I can prove that to my students with links to official documents, but that doesn't change the opposition's stance one bit. Those few have aligned themselves with the [refugees = bad] camp. The idea that it's illegal is often the only argument they have to go on, so they just repeat it regardless overt evidence to the contrary. The idea that this is a means to uphold an identity helps explain the intensity of their adherence to inaccurate facts. We can easily see this phenomenon with the rise of neo-Nazis, a group of, generally, young white males who have felt like outsiders, but have found a common bond with others through a shared view that non-whites are a cause of their problems. It's hard to convince people to stop disparaging a group of people if that very action is the core of their most profound sense of community. We're not just correcting facts, but dismantling a sense of connectedness. How do we develop different communities and group affiliations?

Dresser refers to John Rawls who wrote about pervasive disagreement being a necessary part of a democratic system, but Rawls didn't mean disagreements on scientifically verifiable facts. Dresser says,
"What is particularly troubling about some societal disagreements is that they concern factual matters that tend to be almost impossible to resolve since there is no agreed-upon method to do so, all while relating to important policy decisions. Generally, theorising about liberal democracy has focused largely on moral and political disagreements, while tacitly assuming that there would be no important factual disagreements to consider. It has been taken for granted that we would eventually agree about the facts, and the democratic processes would concern how we should adjudicate our differences in values and preferences. But this assumption is no longer adequate, if it ever was."
If holding up clear, unbiased, scientifically verifiable evidence isn't enough to convince people that refugees seeking asylum aren't illegals, that climate change is anthropomorphic, that homeopathic remedies don't cure cancer, or that obliterating one race or gender or whatever will not solve your problems, then what is the method we use to dismantle the claim that leaves a person intact?

In part, we need a shift to a new type of enlightened era, but not the kind Steven Pinker argues that we already have! Understanding the scientific method should be enough for Pinker to recognize that climate change is a problem, and yet he insists, that "nature has begun to rebound . . . the improvements can be seen with the naked eye."  Um... really?! We, so obviously, need to reestablishing the primacy of the scientific method when it comes to verifiable facts, while recognizing that some concepts will forever sit outside of that realm. Skepticism has its place, but there are still some generally knowable claims. It can be both.

And, of course, then there's this:

Matthew Sears, just today in Macleans, called on academics to comment more forcefully and frequently when people step out of their areas of expertise to make erroneous claims. Mistakes need to be corrected more quickly and loudly in the public sphere before they are deemed true by ignorant consensus. I would add that what gives some of the dubious claims so much traction is their simplicity. It's up to the academic experts not just to refute these claims, but to communicate in language that people understand clearly enough to repeat to others to continue the clarification of facts ad infinitum.

Sears added this acknowledgement:

But that identity issue is still hanging there. People rally around negative claims and take-downs on forums where bonds over a shared animosity are formed. That type of experience doesn't happen in the same way when people pleasantly agree. We need some means to create community that overrides these baser instincts. Somehow...

And a final piece of the puzzle is that reality is hard to face. We have to cope with facing up to the destruction we are causing to the atmosphere, the level of exploitation of people that we tacitly accept with our many purchases, our fear of a lack of resources that drives some exclusionary ideologies, the helplessness we feel when falling ill in a way that can't be saved by science because we still have limits to our knowledge, and the hopelessness we feel when we see children in cages who, no matter how you slice it, do not deserve that kind of suffering.

We also have to be willing to give up our unfair advantage and our power over the world, but it's hard to give up a lifestyle we're used to, the perceived necessities that were luxuries of older generations. Change of this magnitude is painfully difficult. It's so much easier to just believe it's not true. But there it is. How do we capitulate to reality when it's not in our personal best interest.

Approaching a mistaken claim made by someone we have a vested interest in helping through this world is a bigger task, then, than just a mere correction. It becomes a redirection towards a much more frightening worldview that might also affect their social supports.

So, this is where courage comes in.


Anonymous said...

Very well put. Coalesces various observations and experiences I've had into a unified whole.

I worked in the electrical utility business for several decades. And I was trained as an engineer before that. So facts tend to be facts for me. Imagine if someone working at the transmission grid control centre up and decided one day, well, these people don't know how to run things, I've worked out a better way! So I'll click on these control devices on the screen and change the way it all works together. Or imagine if a lineman repairing downed poles after a storm decided their way of fixing things up was equal to or better than the procedures worked out over the last 90 years by common agreement. Zzzt!

All the fluffy anti-vaxxer types who figure the docs are out to get 'em, or the climate change deniers who seem wilfully blind, because at the moment there are no direct right-now effects for being monumentally stupid, get away with it because of the lag between cause and effect - and with some things, the effect may not come to pass, thereby reinforcing their opinions. Apparently imagination and/or rational analysis are not concepts that have crossed their minds. Which is how I personally characterize the Conservative mindset - future vision is not their bag, and anyone who exhibits such traits is a pointy-headed intellectual suitable for hazing. Now grab that shovel and dig your way to prosperity like the great god harper prophesied and demanded!

I'm getting on so perhaps may escape the consequences of too many opinions of people who've never had to face right-now reality where opinion is no option, but where facts do matter. I see no sign of change, nor any hope that students or parents that choose to be offended by facts will come around to common sense. The likelihood therefore is that some major calamity will occur and cull the herd. Perhaps the remaining survivors will be rational for a time thereafter, but then the inexorable return of myths, legends and old wives' tales will gradually re-arise. Rinse and repeat - the human condition was ever thus.

I'm a fatalist.

Bill Malcolm

Marie Snyder said...

Hi Bill! I agree with the "rinse and repeat" issue. I'm not convinced it's a solvable problem. But I'm not a fatalist. I'll still do my little bit to affect the people sitting in front of me each day because it's the right thing to do, not because it will save the world, of course. It might actually have the affect of merely making more people aware of the untimely demise of the species but still helpless to alter our course. I'm riding on knowing > not knowing at all costs.