Epistemic Status: Exhortative
I did not expect Donald Trump to become President.
I did not expect him to win, or even get very far, in the Republican primaries. Like many people, I thought the idea of Donald Trump becoming president was “weird” or “surreal” or “not a thing that happens.” Like many people, I’ve thought 2016 was a surreal year; the Cubs won the World Series, Hillary Clinton went on television to warn people about white-supremacist memes, Elon Musk has landed rockets on ocean platforms and started an organization to develop Friendly AI. Surreal, right?
It’s real, not surreal. If reality looks weird, this means our stories about it are wrong.
Did polls and newspapers and social media fail to see this election coming? Then those sources just took a hit in credibility.
On a longer-term note, if you know there’s a replication crisis in scientific research, that should be shaking up your trust in published papers.
There may be a crisis in politics. But before we can do anything sensible about that, we need to understand that there is a crisis in credence. If the world looks weird to you and me today, that is not a matter for rueful laughter, it is a sign that we are probably badly wrong about lots of things.
And being totally wrong about how the world works is a threat to survival.
What this election brought home to me is that I don’t want to be wrong any more.
A lot of things people say and write are not really what they think is true about the world. They’re expressions of emotion or identity or solidarity. Arthur Applebee writes about “the affective center” being the prototypical use of language: gossip, relationship-building, sharing feelings. Evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller thinks that language, as well as the high intelligence needed to navigate social relations, evolved in humans through sexual selection. We are built for these “soft” uses of language and thought: to relate, to bond, to politick. Doing that feels good and intuitive and healthy. It feels “human”, because it is.
It is, of course, also not truth-seeking. We have a host of cognitive biases, particularly in these normal, social uses of speech. Much of it is bullshit, in Harry Frankfurt’s terminology: not so much lies as not about truth in the first place.
But it is possible for language to be used in ways that do point towards truth. Arguments where premises follow from conclusions — when people are reading to check whether premises follow from conclusions and facts are supported by evidence — actually do hold independently of shifting social contexts.
What that requires socially is for people to do something quite unnatural. Instead of going with the flow (relating, politicking, sharing feelings, bonding), it involves breaking the flow. Nitpicking. Disagreeing. Being dry and technical. Fact-checking.
The motto of the Royal Society of London was “Nullius in verba”, or “Take nobody’s word for it.” The modern scientific tradition was founded by a small group of people defined by the fact that they would call bullshit on things unless they were demonstrated by evidence. This is inherently disagreeable — literally, it involves disagreeing.
The contemporary flow of social media works to prevent discussion and argument, while earlier internet formats worked to promote it.
A blog and a comments section, or a forum, or an email thread, is set up to encourage discussion. One has space to write long-form, multi-paragraph essays, which are stored permanently; and then there is ample space for other people to write long-form, multi-paragraph responses to those essays. One can respond to specific points separately. One can respond to responses, in long nested threads. It is good form to cite sources (links and hat-tips). The social reward for writing is getting a response to your writing. The world of blogs and forums provided an alternative to mass media that was more discursive and more intellectual.
Newer forms of social media inhibit discussion and promote simpler affective responses.
Facebook still allows threaded discussions, but the unit of attention is the like. You get socially rewarded when lots of people agree with you; agreement, being cheaper than response, will wind up being more abundant and hence more dominant, in a sort of Gresham’s Law phenomenon.
Twitter doesn’t allow room for long-form content, of course, and the first-class actions are liking and retweeting: approval and copying. Tumblr allows for paragraph-long posts, but has such poor threading that it’s difficult to hold a discussion, structurally prefers images and videos to text, and makes liking and reblogging first-class actions. Snapchat and Instagram are deeply unfriendly to text.
And all of the above social media platforms have an endlessly scrolling feed, which makes conversations ephemeral and difficult to reference.
The incentives are against discussion and towards response. Instant emotional readouts, approval or disapproval. Image rather than language. Copying rather than original writing.
The medium is designed for agreement, not disagreement. People who can’t communicate in a way that will rack up “likes” or “favorites” tend to quietly withdraw. And that feels awkward, like they’re spoiling the party, like a kind of Puritanism.
But I also suspect that these Puritans, these disagreeable people, have something to teach us. Especially now. Especially when it’s become clear that “believing” things out of mood affiliation leads to very wrong conclusions about the world.
Humans love to socialize. One of the things that we like to do with leisure and technology is talk to each other. I’m not denigrating this normal human urge, which finds expression in social media.
What I’m saying is that one of the remarkable things that can be done with human intelligence, language, and socializing is to have discussions. Arguments. Conversations. Science is a form of conversation, as is philosophy. Out of the natural “affective center” of gossip can come something that is a bit more unnatural but extraordinarily powerful: you can come to reliable and referenceable common knowledge. You can refer back to “oh, yeah, on February 15th Bob did this experiment and on February 16th Alice tried it herself and got the same result, and then Carl found a flaw in the design so it turned out Alice and Bob were wrong.”
It’s not about liking a claim, it’s about being convinced by it.
I’m not talking about something that necessarily has to be high-minded and out of reach, or something that will singlehandedly fix the problems we face.
But it seems really useful now to start having discussions again. On blogs, on forums, on email, in contexts where it’s socially rewarding to disagree and pick things apart, rather than to merge into mobs of agreement.
It’s urgent to figure out what is going on in the world and how we can keep it from hurting us. And that means our errors need to be corrected.
If this seems kind of dutiful and unpleasant, compared to the warm rush of likes and reblogs and image-sharing, consider that it’s actually kind of fun in its own right to have arguments and discussions and to dig into the nitty-gritty. It’s the nerdy kind of fun that gets a kick out of details, out of facts, out of messing around until things click into place satisfyingly. It’s the mental equivalent of the kind of fun it is to make things with your hands, or to play games.
The Scottish Enlightenment was a little, well, Scottish. What are the Scottish stereotypes? A little grouchy, a little ornery, a little stingy. Hard-headedly practical. Blunt. In other words, there’s a kind of healthy disagreeableness, that says “don’t give me bullshit”, and “don’t rip me off”, and “I’m sure as hell not going to kneel to you” and “I may not be rich or powerful, but I’m honest”, and “I built machines that work, dammit.” In a world where liking and agreeing is the currency, I think we are likely to underappreciate the virtues that go with disagreeableness.
I’m going to lean more into disagreement and fact-checking. I’m going to try to appreciate the people who say “not exactly” instead of going with the flow. I’m going to aim to have my discussions in contexts that are actually designed for discussion. I care about not being wrong, now, in a way I really didn’t before. And I encourage others to consider doing the same.