Sometimes I feel like Rip Van Winkle. A career in civil rights and employment law kept me in the midst of political issues and controversies for over thirty years, but upon my retirement in 2003, I decided to enjoy a less stressful life: to do so, I would isolate myself from the news. So I went into a deep sleep. For sixteen years now, I’ve been dreaming of beautiful things. During my slumber, I played with grandchildren, I gardened, I wrote historical fiction, I read some of my daughter’s old college psychology texts – nothing that would raise my blood pressure. I especially enjoyed reading about the psychology of human error, and confirmation bias.
In Being Wrong (Harper Collins, 2010) Kathryn Schulz quotes the French essayist Montaigne as asserting that people “are swept [into a belief] – either by the custom of their country or by their parental upbringing, or by chance – as by a tempest, without judgment or choice, indeed most often before the age of discretion.” In keeping with that view, Schulz asserts that the single best predictor of someone’s political ideology is their parents’ political ideology. That had certainly been true in my case, and as I researched the actual lives of the players in my historical fiction, I had discovered how true it was for them as well. I was forced to ask myself the difficult question of whether I believed what I did, not because it made objective sense, but because of an inherited or at least culturally-guided confirmation bias of my own.
Now, even when asleep, our bodies can sense the presence of heat, cold, or other stimuli, and in a similar way, though I was asleep, I did hear snippets of the outside world from time to time. The classic movie I’d recorded (so I could fast-forward through campaign ads) having ended, I’d be startled when the TV screen suddenly defaulted to the late news on TV. In the car, entranced by Smetana’s Moldau or Charles Mingus’s rendition of “I’ll Remember April,” I’d be jarred awake by a piece of headline news before my hand could turn the radio off. So I wasn’t totally asleep; not totally unaware of what was going on in the modern world. Just mostly so.
Now, think what you will of him, few will deny that Donald Trump makes for engaging theater. So no surprise, occasional sound bites of last summer’s slugfest between Donald and Hillary began to intrude on my dream, appealing to my own interest in politics the way a voice whispering “one little drink won’t hurt you” might appeal to an alcoholic, even after sixteen years on the wagon. And – no one will be surprised to hear this – since awakening from my sixteen-year political slumber, I’ve been feeling like old Rip Van Winkle himself, rubbing my eyes in disbelief at how much has changed during my absence, aghast at just how divisive this country had become while I slept. My conservative friends had become so opinionated and cocksure that I found myself trying to articulate liberal replies in response, in an effort to moderate their extremism. My liberal friends had become so arrogant and dismissive of their opponents that it seemed I had to join them, or become their enemy. Two months ago, I started this blog as the only response I could think of to a world that seemed to have gone out of control as I slept. And because of this blog, I have started, once again, to be sucked into the vortex of the news.
I still know little of what went down during my reverie. As I emerge from my slumber, I imagine myself having something like Van Winkle’s naivete. Perhaps that naivete will be apparent to others, as I dare to comment on the modern political scene. But let the chips fall where they may, I’m going to comment – because I’ve decided my long slumber may actually be of help to the mission at hand.
My brother James alerted me today to an article I found most interesting, and this article is actually the focus of my post today. But before I get to it, I’m afraid that, for some on the right, it might be an immediate turnoff to mention that it came from Vox. Vox is a news source I’d never heard of until today, as it was created during the period of my deep slumber. From what I’ve been able to gather this afternoon, it’s apparently viewed by the right as being very left. So I feel constrained to offer, first, a word of caution about sources.
In Kathryn Schulz’s catalogue of the types of non-rational, illogical thinking to which we human beings are prone, she points out that “[i]nstead of trusting a piece of information because we have vetted its source, we trust a source, and therefore accept its information.” That’s understandable in some cases, but not a good thing for one aspiring to real communication across the political divide. And in this case, I feel I have an advantage – having never heard of Vox before, I hold no biases for or against the source. I neither trust it nor distrust it. I can only consider what I read in it on its own merits.
Anyway, I hear today that Ezra Klein launched Vox in the eleventh year of my slumber with an article titled “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.” I haven’t read it, but it apparently focused on the scientific work of Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School whose earlier work showed that the ability to reason soundly, particularly about political subjects, is undermined by the need to protect one’s core beliefs. Hence, “how politics makes us stupid.” Now, lost as I may have been in the land of Nod, that came as no surprise to me: it sounded like run-of-the-mill confirmation bias, and I had digested the concept of confirmation bias years ago, before ever going to sleep, along with half a package of Oreo cookies. But of greater interest to me is what appeared in Vox this week. Klein has now reported on the work of Professor Kahan again, this time to report a way to escape our human susceptibility to confirmation bias: CURIOSITY.
Apparently, as described by Klein (http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/2/1/14392290/partisan-bias-dan-kahan-curiosity), Kahan’s new research shows that some of us – on both the right and the left – are more scientifically curious than others. And that those of us who are scientifically curious are less prone to confirmation bias – or, to use Kahan’s phrase – less prone to let our politics make us “stupid.” The point appears to be that confirmation bias interferes with sound thinking on both the left and the right, but that curiosity – a trait that exists on both the left and the right – is the common predictive factor that makes us less susceptible to the “stupidity” toward which confirmation bias pushes us.
Now, I haven’t vetted the source. I haven’t even read Kahan’s actual findings. I know better than to rely on the second-hand report of any mediary, trusted or not. But I have to confess, I’m doggone interested. For the past several weeks, I’ve been asserting that political debate is for people who want to prove that they’re right in the eyes of a judge – not for people who want to convince people with whom they disagree. In a debating class, there’s some sort of third-party judge. In a courtroom, there’s a judge or jury. In a political debate, there’s the undecided viewing public that is the effective judge. In every case, the efforts of the debaters are designed to win points with the third-party judges by making the other side look erroneous, ignorant, or (best of all) just plain foolish.
How surprised I was, upon waking from my slumber, to discover that modern internet discussion is conducted the same way – as if there were some third party judge present to determine a winner. After a thirty year legal career, I can tell you that I never saw a plaintiff convince a defendant she was right, nor a defendant convince a plaintiff that he was. Rubbing my eyes of my sleepy dust, I had to wonder what these internet debaters thought they were doing in their efforts to “win an argument” (by showing how stupid their adversaries were) in the absence of any third party judge. Weren’t they quite obviously driving their opponents deeper into their convictions? In Being Wrong, Schulz describes exactly that phenomenon – how such efforts to “persuade” actually have the opposite effect. And I’ve been saying that, surely, it makes more sense to conduct political discourse with a sincere attitude of wanting to learn from one’s adversaries, rather than proving (to ourselves?) how stupid our adversaries are. I’ve been asking whether, paradoxically, a sincere desire to learn from someone else isn’t more likely to result in his or her learning from us at the same time. And I’ve been wondering if there isn’t some psychological study that backs up that theory.
So here, today, comes my brother James, providing me exactly the sort of scientific study I’ve been looking for. A desire to learn — curiosity — could it really make us less susceptible to confirmation bias? Perhaps this is all just confirmation bias, on my part, fitting as well as it does with what I already suspected. So I want to check into it further. I will check into it further. But in the mean time, doggone it, it seems clear to me that curiosity must be the remedy, just as Kahan and Klein say. If being curious isn’t close to being open-minded, and if being open-minded isn’t essential to learning, and if learning isn’t something we should all strive to experience, then what is? And how come there’s all this debating and berating that has been shown to keep us from ever learning anything?
The world has changed a great deal in my years in the land of Nod. Now that I’m awake, feeling (like old Rip Van Winkle) a good bit naïve and ill-informed, with no real clue about the strange new world I find around me, I am very, very thankful for that slumber. For after thinking over what Kahan’s research has apparently shown, I believe my deep sleep may have done me a huge favor; by being politically asleep for these sixteen years, what strikes some (myself included) as naivete may be just what I need to be curious about what’s been going on in the world; curious about who’s right, and whose wrong; and ready, and willing, to learn from people who aren’t already my mental clones.
I’ll close by applauding another website I learned of just today: The Lystening Project. The Lystening Project is an innovative approach to fostering open-mindedness and civility in political discourse, conceived of by a class of San Francisco high school students in what is surely a kindred spirit to that of We May Be Wrong. Check out their website for yourself, but from what I gather, their idea is to assess participants’ political leanings through a short survey of opinions, and then to pair them with people of opposing views for dialogue across the divide. I especially like the “oath” that participants must take before undertaking such paired dialogue:
“The Lystening Oath”
I will take a moment to connect with the other person as a human being first.
I will enter this conversation with the goal of understanding, not convincing.
I will not vilify, demean or degrade others or their views.
I will enter this conversation with goodwill and I will assume goodwill on the part of the other person.
I will do my best to express my own views and how I came to believe them
Reminds me of the rules for the WMBW Forum. I can’t imagine a better oath to ask people to take, and I thank the students’ advisor, Elijah Colby, for bringing their project to my attention. Check them out for yourself at https://thelysteningproject.wixsite.com/thelysteningproject. Help if you can.