My wife is fond of teasing that I don’t read any more. This isn’t exactly true – I read a good deal, but my consumption of books, particularly fiction, is nowhere near the level it was before children, homeownership, and a growing list of hobbies gradually took over my free time. The majority of my reading is now online: blogs, twitter, news, doctor who spoilers, a song of ice and fire theories, etc. I have around forty blogs in my RSS feed plus a few others that I will pop in to read once in a while. I don’t keep those in my feed simply because their enthusiasm about the subject matter results in prolific writing and I simply can’t keep up. While I admit I don’t give all blogs in my feed the same level of attention, my lack of interest in some chosen topics is more to blame for this than the ability of the writer.
Here I am talking about my reading habits, but that’s not really the focus of this post, rather it is a setup for my main point: how we all select sources of our information, particularly related to contentious issues or topics with many alternative viewpoints. As a student of science and practicing engineer, I have for years used the scientific method and the philosophy of challenging ideas from multiple directions as tools to solve problems. A healthy level of skepticism in your thinking is useful in nearly all areas of life, and particularly important in the realm of politics where actual thinking is often is short supply. This is a challenging notion for human beings, given the variety of quirks built into our minds. I believe the saying goes, “the first step is recognizing you have a problem.” Successfully assessing your position on any subject requires an honest and thorough evaluation of information that challenges your current thinking.
While I do read a good deal of blogs and news sources that comport with my worldview, I find it very useful to include some that do not. There is always a danger in staying too close to your own ideological comfort zone. Venturing outward is where new ideas are found and where existing ideas are refined. Star Trek introduced the concept of the IDIC (infinite diversity in infinite combinations) as the basis for the Vulcan belief system based on logic. The simplified premise is that true knowledge only comes through the understanding of the infinite variables of the universe. There is wisdom in this idea, even if it is an impossible exercise for a limited mortal being.
Going Outside Your Comfort Zone
Some of my family, friends, and acquaintances are perfectly willing to receive virtually all their information from a small set of partisan or heavily biased sources. These same individuals are as dismissive of sources outside their small trusted group as they are accepting of those within. Folks that go too far into this realm become intensely distrustful of anyone that does not meet their standard. Often their own comfort zone must eventually shrink in order to remain a member of their preferred group. Some can break out of this cycle, but not always.
Much like the muscles in your body, your brain will also atrophy if not properly exercised. If you wish to maintain your mind at a high level of performance, it must be constantly challenged with problems and new ideas. You might be surprised what you can learn about your views by analyzing a well-formed argument against them. It’s not enough to simply go through the motions of listening to the opposition; you must attempt to understand the position and reasoning in detail. This can be a particularly galling experience at first, after all, why would you consider the ideas of someone who is so obviously wrong? It can also be tricky when opposing tribes use different language. It is crucially important for this exercise to understand how their words are being used, and not to superimpose your own biases on their language.
By far the most important thing you must do is to endeavor to select a strong opposing argument to analyze. Selecting a weak opposing argument does not challenge you because it can be easily deflected. Selecting a weak opposing argument is intellectually dishonest because you are not responding to the most rational opponent. If the purpose of the exercise is to bolster your own argument, then it is to your advantage to be able to respond to the strongest opposing argument. If the purpose of the exercise is to objectively evaluate your own position, then it is to your advantage to consider the counter-argument most likely to refute your own. You wouldn’t (shouldn’t – I’m certain there are assholes who would) play Monopoly with a 3-year old just so you can win, so why on earth would you approach a challenge to your political views this way? Being right ultimately isn’t about winning the argument, fun as that may be, it is about having a fuller understanding of the issue in debate.
Fallacious Forms of Thinking
I’m a big fan of using reason and logic to arrive at conclusions, even if I’m not always successful in applying them to my own thinking. It’s harder than it would seem, so much that there are groups dedicated to improving themselves through better thinking. When it comes to evaluating sources of supporting and opposing arguments, it is essential to apply the same standard to all. Above I mentioned the choice between selecting a strong versus weak argument in opposition to your own views. The separation between strong and weak is more than simply being convincing or consisting of compelling written form. For an argument to be strong, it must attempt to refute all principal opposing points using logic and reason. This is a tall order in most circumstances, even more so in the realm of politics where there are sometimes no truly right answers.
There are a number of sites dedicated to the understanding of various types of fallacies. I suggest reading them at your leisure. If you are particularly adventurous, go back through your writings, tweets, etc. and attempt to identify where you have employed fallacies. Understanding fallacies is important not just in evaluating the content of someone’s argument; it also plays a role in the consideration of that person as a reasonable source of information.
A few weeks back, I saw a tweet linking to an interview by Ron Paul of Glenn Greenwald regarding his reporting on the NSA. One individual responded to the tweet asking why he should listen to Greenwald, who recently spoke at a socialist event. The implied argument here is that if a person has any socialist leanings then anything and everything they might think or say is wrong or not worth considering. Depending on your interpretation, you might call this Ad Hominem or Guilt by Association. Regardless, I call it wrong. It completely ignores the content of Greenwald’s answers, and instead attempts to use an unrelated bit of Greenwald’s views to dismiss him entirely. I called him on it, as did one other individual, and we were naturally ignored (and I presume at least one more person in this world now views me as a socialist – I giggle at the irony).
The intent of telling this little story is to point out that in the quest for finding a strong opposing argument, you may need to read or listen to someone who holds some views you find to be odious or repugnant. All too often, people view this as a negative. It is certainly easier to be dismissive of folks on the opposing side of whatever issue is at hand, but it is not conducive to understanding the other side, and it is certainly not an effective way to form a rational counterargument. While I admit to being guilty of this myself, I nonetheless view it as a failure in critical thinking and an opportunity for self-improvement. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The trick sometimes lies in determining the right time to listen.
I’ve rambled and meandered a bit in this post, a clear indication that I should write more often (yes, it has been more than a month since my last post – bad, bad blogger). Still, I hope there are some small gems of good ideas in there for you to pick out, and I promise to attempt to be a bit more coherent next time.