In 1994, Carl Sagan famously said, “We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.”
Over two decades later, despite making staggering technological advancements and scientific breakthroughs, we’ve still made seemingly minimal progress in this area.
How do we live in a world where, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, over 40% of Americans believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old? How do we have a country where over half of Congress has decided to align itself with the 3% of scientists who don’t acknowledge climate change?
As people climb aboard the anti-vaccination bandwagon, others believe previous Presidents wire-tapped current Presidents, and anyone (one person is too many) still believes the earth is flat, we need to ask, with information so readily available, why is it so poorly used?
It’s tempting to just blame incompetence. We could just say that people are dumb. Not us, of course. Those other people, the ones with the backward thoughts.
But people aren’t dumb. We know this is generally true. So it’s not a question of understanding new information. It’s a question of encouraging people to use it intelligently. Because we’ve created situations that discourage this very behavior.
If we want to promote a better understanding – if we want to reverse the disastrous course that Carl Sagan described – we need to recognize and address the closed-minded behaviors that got us here.
In his recent book Principles, self-made billionaire and founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Ray Dalio, attributes his success to the open-minded behaviors he’s developed and instilled in his company. Behaviors that have helped him recover from major failures and turn around seemingly hopeless situations. Confronted with the close-minded actions, As our culture continues to move down a path of immediacy, superficial understanding, and online echo chambers, it’s these practices of open-mindedness that can turn us around.
The good news is that all of these behaviors can be developed with a small amount of focus and a slightly larger amount of patience. We just need to realize it and take action.
Broaden Your Perspectives.
“I have found triangulating with highly believable people who are willing to have thoughtful disagreements has never failed to enhance my learning and sharpen the quality of my decision making.” – Ray Dalio, Principles
If you were diagnosed with a rare disease, what would you do? Chances are, you’d search for the best possible doctors and seek out their expertise. You’d gain the best information available, then make a decision on how to move forward. You wouldn’t scour the world looking for the lone doctor to tell you that it’s not a big deal.
It’s crazy to think we’d seek a minority medical opinion just to hear what we want to hear. Yet we seem to follow this practice every day online. We actively limit our information to that which aligns to our opinions.
We follow people online whose views are similar to our own. We click on links that we believe align with our own thoughts. And our feeds are sorted and filtered based on our preferences. The overwhelming nature of the Internet can easily drive us into these filter bubbles. And left unchecked, it will only get worse.
As confirmation bias dictates, we have a tendency to seek information that confirms our opinions while ignoring evidence to the contrary. It’s more comfortable to be reassured, so our minds will seek out supporting evidence while avoiding information that challenges our views. We do this every day, often without realizing it.
But the consequences of this practice eventually add up. As Eli Pariser warns in his book, The Filter Bubble, “Personalization filters serve a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”
In his farewell address, President Obama also provided his concerns over this current trend,
“For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”
Theo E.J. Wilson, an African American activist, recognized this liability when he was debating white supremacists online. In response, he created an alternate identity, Lucius25, to gain better access to the alt-right movement and better understand their perspectives. With the knowledge he gained, Theo developed a level of compassion for his opponents’ backgrounds and motivations. In a situation where most of us would have just increased the volume of our own views, Theo took steps to better understand, and consequently better connect, with alternative viewpoints. He was better able to hold conversations with his opponents. In Theo’s words, “Conversations stop violence. Conversations start countries. They build bridges. And when the chips are down, conversations are the last tool that humans use before they pick up the guns.”
Without conversations, our only means of persuasion is manipulation and violence. We need to have these difficult conversations. But before we can do that, we need to understand alternative perspectives and motivations. And to do that, we need to break out of our filter bubbles.
Returning to Eli Pariser’s guidance, “A world constructed from the familiar is the world in which there’s nothing to learn.”
“Watch out for people who think it’s embarrassing not to know. They’re likely to be more concerned with appearances than actually achieving the goal; this can lead to ruin over time.” – Ray Dalio, Principles
When was the last time you said, “I don’t know” when you were asked for your opinion on a topic? When was the last time you saw someone excuse themselves from having an opinion until they could further consider the issue?
These occurrences probably happen much less frequently than they should. We’re expected to have an opinion on everything. It’s a social failure not to. After all, anyone with a brain can have an opinion.
In this mentality, saying “I don’t know” is saying we’re either unable to think or we’re out of touch with the world. There’s not many of us jumping to volunteer that information.
So we rush to develop an opinion on every topic. We read an op-ed or listen to an online rant and whip up an opinion. Maybe even memorize a couple smart sound bites to plagiarize as our own thoughts. We don’t consider both sides and develop our own beliefs. We don’t have that kind of time. So we walk through these issues with a superficial understanding that’s based on some borrowed ideas. And this slowly becomes our identity.
I think we can all agree this isn’t an ideal way to go through life. The alternative isn’t to run from the uncertainty, but to embrace it.
Uncertainty isn’t an impediment to learning, it’s the core of it. As Stuart Firestein writes in Ignorance: How It Drives Science, “Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.”
Life is uncertainty. There are more mysteries and questions than we can ever hope to answer. All of which makes life the exciting challenge that it is. It’s these mysteries, the open questions and the constant pull of understanding, that inspires us to keep reaching for new developments, new ideas, and new adventures.
Returning to Firestein’s thoughts on the topic, he tells us, “Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.”
When we can practice saying, “I don’t know,” we can appreciate living with the mystery for a little longer. It’s much more rewarding to put off today’s opinion for tomorrow’s understanding.
Understand Other People’s Views Before Arguing
“Dealing with raw opinions will get you and everyone else confused; understanding where they come from will help you get to the truth.” – Ray Dalio, Principles
In March of this year, author Charles Murray took the stage at Middlebury University to speak on his controversial research and books. He was met with student protests which prevented him from giving the scheduled speech. Protests that eventually turned violent, seriously injuring professor Allison Stanger.
In May, Evergreen State College dominated headlines as professor Bret Weinstein was labeled a fascist and threatened with violence for speaking out against a college tradition originally intended to promote greater equity among students.
Before that, Nicholas and Erika Christakis were forced to resign from positions at Yale over an email suggesting that we should trust college students with the responsibility of dressing in good taste on Halloween.
There are more cases. Likely you’re aware of them.
Never mind that I disagreed with a number of Charles Murray’s views in The Bell Curve, or that I have no desire to police college kids in their choice of Halloween costumes, or the fact that I don’t quite understand the value of Evergreen’s “Day of Absence.” None of that matters as much as the question, why are we so afraid to have these conversations?
There’s no doubt that there are groups that don’t warrant our time or consideration. Oprah’s decision to cut short her discussion with white supremacists could be one such example. Deborah Lipstadt’s experience with Holocaust deniers would likely qualify as well.
But in the large majority of cases, we’re better off looking to understand the basis behind people’s views. If, instead of a violent protest, Middlebury elected to foster an open discussion on these topics of concern, what would have happened?
There’s unlikely to be a scenario where an open discussion succeeds in changing Charles Murray’s mind. But many other people would have watched with interest and made more informed decisions as a result.
As the great seventeenth century French physicist, philosopher, mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal describes in his visionary collection of philosophy Pensees, “When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides.”
Before anyone published the notion of confirmation bias or the backfire effect, Pascal recognized their dangers. He saw that the best way to connect with people is to understand how they currently see the issue and then meet them there. Criticizing or mocking their views will only digs their minds further into their current beliefs.
This doesn’t mean we need to agree with their position. It only means we’ve made an effort to understand their views. In doing so, we gain a level of credibility with our opponent which helps them to be more receptive to our own ideas. All of which fosters a more productive discussion of the issues.
Foster Conversation Over Debates
“In thoughtful disagreement, your goal is not to convince the other party that you are right—it is to find out which view is true and decide what to do about it.” – Ray Dalio, Principles
Eighty-four million people tuned in for the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016. I don’t know how many people made voting decisions based on this experience, but I’ve yet to meet anyone for whom this was the case.
We advertise debates as a way to discuss conflicting views and come to a common understanding. We hold debates at work when we want to stress test new ideas or challenge a decision. Yet this practice is one of the worst ways to help people make an optimal decision.
When we hold a debate, changing your mind is a failure. We don’t want to generate a common understanding. We want to push our views on the other side. The objective isn’t understanding all options to arrive at the best solution. It’s understanding the opposing views only enough to counter and score more points for our arguments.
In this method, we again drive people deeper into their pre-existing views. Instead of considering new information and rethinking their positions, people dig their heels into the ground and refuse to budge. When changing your mind is synonymous with “previously unintelligent,” it’s not surprising that most people invoke the backfire effect, a well-documented psychological bias where we distort new information to continually confirm our existing beliefs.
In an Alphachat podcast, Dr. Robert Cialdini provided his view that if Democrats are to appeal to 2016 Trump supporters, they cannot continue to take the shaming, I Told You So! position that they’re currently committed to. As we’ve already seen, these tactics only caused people to further double-down on their previous choice.
Alternatively, Cialdini suggests, we need to meet them with understanding and offer new information that lets them alter their position without acting inconsistently to previously established behaviors. In short, we need to give them an excuse. Democrats need to worry less about proving they were actually right in 2016 and focus on helping people see how new developments would justify a new position in 2020. By way of example, Cialdini suggests, “Well, of course you were in a position to make that decision in November because you didn’t know about X.”
Whether we want to change someone’s mind or promote a better understanding, we can’t do this in an adversarial fashion. Debates, then, are not the answer. Conversations are.
On his Waking Up podcast, neuroscientist and armchair philosopher Sam Harris asked astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson why he doesn’t partake in scientific debates. His response covered the issue perfectly,
“I don’t have the time or the patience. I’d rather just educate you in the first place. So that the debate isn’t even necessary.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson sees his role as an educator. He would rather help people understand the science behind each question. And then let everyone leverage their own values and beliefs to make the best decision that suits them.
In this method, we stop trying to score points for our arguments, but work towards providing a first principles understanding of the issue. We establish a common knowledge of the underlying facts and then trust people to leverage their own values and beliefs to identify the position that best supports their situation.
As advice published over 160 years ago in Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness, “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”
That debate may not be as entertaining to watch. But wouldn’t we all be better off after watching it?
Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Mind
“People who change their minds because they learned something are the winners, whereas those who stubbornly refuse to learn are the losers.” – Ray Dalio, Principles
Anyone old enough to remember the 2004 U.S. presidential election may recall a particularly damaging commercial to Democratic candidate, John Kerry. When the Bush campaign located footage of Kerry windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket, they gave everyone a visual anchor of him as a flip-flopper and someone who couldn’t be trusted.
We vilify flip-flopping. We view those too quick to change their mind as those lacking conviction. And people lacking conviction cannot be trusted to hold to their values under pressure. On the other side, we often associate a high degree of consistency with mental discipline. We laud the stalwart who refuses to compromise his beliefs in the face of the aggressive, conforming majority.
When we associate changing our minds with this stigma, it’s not surprising that people will go to great lengths to maintain their original positions.
As Dr. Robert Cialdini explains in Influence, “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.”
But we also define intelligence as the ability to learn. And is there any better sign of learning than changing your views with the presence of new information?
Throughout his career, Steve Jobs gained a reputation as someone who stubbornly defended his own ideas. But Ed Catmull provided a different view of him in Creativity, Inc,,
“Steve had a remarkable knack for letting go of things that didn’t work. If you were in an argument with him, and you convinced him that you were right, he would instantly change his mind. He didn’t hold on to an idea because he had once believed it to be brilliant. His ego didn’t attach to the suggestions he made, even as he threw his full weight behind them.”
Steve Jobs recognized the value of conviction and the importance of stubbornly holding to his principles, but he also understood the benefit of changing his position to do what was right. As George Bernard Shaw well described, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
Be Willing to Argue Against Yourself
“To be radically open-minded, you need to be so open to the possibility that you could be wrong that you encourage others to tell you so.” – Ray Dalio, Principles
In 1831, a 22-year old divinity student gained an opportunity to circumnavigate the globe, studying natural history and geology. Only one obstacle remained – his father, the critical financier for his journey, disagreed with throwing away a respectable career in the clergy. To help persuade his father, the young man enlisted the help of his uncle, and crafted an argument that acknowledged and addressed each of his father’s objections. Thus began Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle and led to conclusions that forever changed the way we think about ourselves and the world in which we live.
In the 28 years that Charles Darwin researched and perfected his masterwork, On the Origin of Species, he retained that same mentality of considering his opposition and preemptively resolving objections.
In Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, Adam Gropnik describes Darwin’s practice as sympathetic summary – “reporting an objection or contrary argument fully and accurately and even, if possible, with greater force than its own believers might be able to summon.”
In Gropnik’s words, “Darwin tells us himself that he forced on himself the habit, whenever he came across a fact that might be inconvenient for his thesis, of copying it down and paying attention to it, and that this, more than anything else, gave him his ability to anticipate critics and answer them.”
The impact of Darwin’s ideas is rightly attributed to their visionary nature. But he also presented these ideas in methods that were incredibly persuasive. He recognized the skepticism with which his work would be received and he considered and rebuked each objection with thorough scientific arguments.
But it would be misleading to believe that Darwin went through this process for the sole purpose of disarming would-be critics. From 1838 when he crystallized his theory of natural selection until 1859 when he finally published his thesis, Darwin was constantly refining his ideas. He was able to present and refute these counterclaims so convincingly because he had lived them. These concerns were his concerns. And by embodying them, he was able to perfect both his theory and his argument.
Darwin embodied a practice of paying specific attention to contrary arguments and using them to test his theories. In short, he brilliantly embodied the fifth tenet in Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit,
“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.”
Recognize the Value of Mistakes
“The challenges you face will test and strengthen you. If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits, and if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximizing your potential.” – Ray Dalio, Principles
Our instinctive response to a crisis is to increase control. As issues occur, we want to prevent them from recurring. And the easiest way of doing that is by creating rules.
Rules and procedures are the great equalizer. They grant equality through control and control through equality. They effectively constrain individual freedoms for the benefit of the whole.
But as Will and Ariel Durant demonstrate in their 104-page summary of history’s greatest lessons, “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”
With each rule, each procedure, each added constraint, we lose freedoms. In some cases this is necessary. We want equality of legal justice. We strive for equal educational opportunities.
Yet our zest for control can take this too far. When rules and procedures are necessary to enforce quality, we also limit people’s ability to learn.
In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel Dennett provides a set of “imagination-extenders and focus holders” to help us “think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions.”
In Dennett’s intuition pump concerning mistakes, he stresses the critical role of mistakes in learning,
“Mistakes are not just opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. There are only two non-miraculous ways for learners to come into existence: they must either evolve or be designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error — and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything.”
As we push control onto others, we limit their ability to make mistakes. We steal this valuable learning opportunity from them. And replace it with a desire to conform into the status quo.
With each new rule, each new piece of control, we need to understand the cost that we’re also invoking. Is the control worth the sacrifice in freedom? Is it worth the sacrifice to learning?
It’s important to remember that when we make idiot-proof processes, we make processes that only idiots want to follow.
Claim Your Education
In 1977, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich provided a commencement address to the graduating women at Douglass College that has since been considered among the greatest of all time. Her speech, titled “Claiming an Education” puts the responsibility on each and every student to make the active choice of investing into their educational future.
“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work… Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions… It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation.”
This timeless advice continues to apply to our struggles today. While many of us have completed our formal schooling and have little interest in sitting in more lecture halls, we still need to be claiming our educations.
The daily temptations of immediacy, mockery, and security through filter bubbles thrive within environments of external indifference. They need a close-minded culture to survive.
The alternative is to address these issues with an open mind. To embrace the conversations and different perspectives available to us. To choose understanding over ego. To claim not only our education, but to take an active responsibility for the education of our communities.
The biggest challenge is starting. So take a step down this path today. After that, the daily benefits become their own incentive. As Adrienne Rich so eloquently said,
“The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.”