The Epistemology of Racism

charlottesville racismIn the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, it is easy to stand back and point fingers at “those people” and think of the trouble as “out there.” There’s a certain comfort and reassurance that we aren’t like that. But much of the persistent problem of racism lurks in more subtle places. I suspect that for most people of color, they don’t often run into people waving flags and carrying torches. The sting of racism comes from the people they live around everyday—people like you and me. We can’t let Charlottesville, Washington and Ferguson blind us to our own contribution.

A Wake-up Call

My wake-up call came in the fall of 2015, when racial tensions here at the University of Missouri exploded. After a series of racially charged events on campus, black students began to protest and launched the “concerned Missouri protestsstudent 1950” movement. When the administration failed to act, protests reached the homecoming parade and finally the football team. The result: several top officials were forced to resign, including the university president and chancellor.

Initially, I admit, didn’t get it. I was teaching ethics on campus, and I clumsily tried to discuss the first incident in class. White students were puzzled. From their perspective, it seemed as if someone threw a firecracker in the room and a nuclear explosion resulted. They couldn’t understand why the black students were “overreacting.” They didn’t see the problem. Ironically, their (and my) failure to “see” turned out to be the problem. I don’t think I fully heard the alarm clock until my department chair called me in later to talk about a complaint from a black student in my class.

Flawed Reasoning

For most well-meaning people in the ethnic majority, our reasoning often follows this pattern when it comes to racism:

1.  I don’t see a lot of (or any) racism around here.
2. So, there isn’t a lot of (or any) racism around here.

But there is a hidden premise here:

1.  I don’t see a lot of (or any) racism around here.
* If there was a lot of racism around here, I would see it.*
2. So, there isn’t a lot of (or any) racism around here.

This hidden premise is false, and here’s why: ethnic majority people like me haven’t developed a reliable ability to perceive racism on campus. We miss most of the racism taking place around us because of its subtlety. I even struggle to see the slight racism in my own words and actions sometimes. A close minority friend in grad school confronted me several times about small comments I made that offended him. Most racist acts manifest in small ways: looks, snubs, seemingly innocuous remarks. People of color who frequently experience these things can detect it easily. Your experience changes your perceptual abilities. My training as a musician gave me heightened sensitivity to bad intonation at musical performances. I hear things others miss. I think the same is true for people of color in their acute perception of racism. And on top of this, unless you are a minority or a perpetrator of overt racist acts, you probably aren’t even around when most of the acts occur.

orchestra performance tuningLet me take the music analogy further. Suppose I attend an orchestra performance with one of my old music professors, and they say, “Oh no, the oboe soloist is out of tune!” I may think to myself, “It sounds ok to me.” But I would probably defer to their judgment, because of their greater experience and expertise. I think ethnic majority people (like myself), need to do the same when it comes to perceiving racism. People of color have developed an expert aptitude for noticing racism. That doesn’t mean they are infallible in their perception, but it does mean we should take their opinions seriously—even if we don’t see it first-hand. And just as I developed my musical ear through “ear-training” in college, we all have a responsibility to sharpen our senses when it comes to perceiving racism.

Reading the Fine Print


The events in Charlottesville were easy to spot as horrendously bigoted and evil. I’m near sighted, but even I can read the handwriting on the wall when it’s six inches away, writ in giant red letters. It’s the small print of racism for which we need glasses, and some of that print is close—as close as your mirror. Listen to the people of color around you. Open your mind to the possibility that you are not blameless, that you are visually-impaired. Take responsibility for your lack of perception and learn to see it. As Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Let Charlottesville be your wake-up call.

3 Reasons Why You Love Click-bait

mouse trap baitClick bait. The impossibly enticing headline. We love it the way fish love . . . whatever it is they love. (I’m not a fisherman.) Maybe like proverbial mice love the cheese in the trap. But the allure of click bait isn’t that visceral, like some leftover of evolution. It is intellectual, or at least cognitive. We bite on those juicy stories because they give us something our minds crave. I admit it—I feel the pull of those tabloid headlines when I’m standing in the check-out line, or scrolling to the bottom of a news feed. I think there are at least three reasons we love click bait.

  1. They tell us what we want to hear. Some people call this “confirmation bias.” We reach for and swallow these stories unchewed because they confirm our precious beliefs. Of course, the stories may (luckily) be true and actually lend support to our worldview, but to wolf them down like so many children of Chronos slowly corrupts our crucial ability to think critically. Still, the allure of stories that play our favorite ideological tunes is powerful.
  2. tabloid headlineWe’re suckers for sensational headlines and images. It’s why tabloids sell. We just have to know whether Angelina Jolie really had a bat-baby or whether that dolphin grew human arms! The possibility of the macabre and fantastical is magnetic. “Abraham Lincoln was a woman??!!”
  3. We forget that media outlets are businesses. If we kept this fact in mind, we would find those headlines far less appealing. Imagine the 19th century American villager titillated by the flashy, handsome snake-oil salesman who rolls into town. He looks impressive, and his claims are magical. But now imagine that same villager who later discovers that he was sold a bottle of sugar-water with no medicinal effects whatsoever. When that salesman rolls back through his town, his new skepticism shields him from the mesmerizing show. The bait no longer allures.

Consider two recent stories that generated plenty of clicks. One story explained how scientists have discovered genetic links between modern Lebanese and ancient Canaanites. The Canaanites were famous for being the bible archaeologyunfortunate victims of ancient Israel’s attempts at genocide in Palestine—well-documented failures. But despite this readily available information, the typical headline read “Scientists Disprove the Bible.

Another story exaggerated with equal flare. This one detailed how archaeologists found evidence for the burning of Jerusalem 2600 years ago. But “found some evidence for X” isn’t nearly as sexy as “proved X!” One headline read “Biblical Event Proven TRUE” and another actually announced this as proof of God’s existence!

So why do we love to click on these stories? Run each one through the three reasons above. Some people desperately WANT them to be true. Or the claims are so outrageous that we have to see if they’re real, like a carnival freak show. And most of us think of news outlets, scientists and religious folks as automatically worthy of trust, forgetting that the headline is probably the product of a business plan, rather than top-notch journalism.

How do we develop a healthy attitude of mild skepticism that will slow down our mouse button just enough to let a little evaluation squeeze into our media consumption process? For me, it came through trial and error. I bought enough snake oil and ate enough crow over the years that I became wary—wary enough to get some training and education to slow down my thinking a bit. Our brains are somewhat wired to do this:

belief process

But I know that I have to consciously discipline my mind to do this:

belief process 2We have to work at slowing down our cognition enough to squeeze in this extra step. I confess that at least once, I shared an article on Facebook without even reading beyond the headline! (I’ve also shared a few “fake” things as a joke to see who would jump straight to acceptance.)

judgeI should mention that you won’t get it right every time. You’ll get fooled occasionally, even if you’re careful. This happened to me just a couple weeks ago when I shared an article that looked totally unbiased, only to have a friend point out that the source, which was extremely biased, had “disguised” itself in the post. The goal should be to do our “due diligence” in thinking things over, passing judgment in the same circumspect manner you would want a judge to decide your own case. Have you seen a “click bait” headline recently? Share it in the comments.

Cromwell’s Rule

CromwellI beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.

~Oliver Cromwell, in a letter to the Synod of Scotland

I remember the day I first learned to ask a crucial question during a conversational argument. Locked in a fervent discussion about religion, my interlocutor and I had logged hours of circling around the same issues. I despaired of making any headway. Then it dawned on me—the question! It was this: “Do you think it is possible that you’re wrong?” He answered “no,” and I politely ended the conversation.

Of course, I’ve put the same question to myself: “Is it possible that I’m wrong on this issue?” And I have to say, “yes.” Doesn’t this seem reasonable? After all, the evidence of my fallibility grows daily. I think this assumption, that one could be wrong, is crucial to any productive argument. The only exception being an argument about the fact of my own current existence—if I’m wrong about that one, then all (my) bets are off. Literally.

Cromwell’s Rule

Dennis Lindley (1923-2013), a British statistician, coined the term “Cromwell’s Rule” regarding this crucial assumption. Lindley was concerned about formally calculating probabilities rather than persuasive argument, but his “rule” helps make a good point. You should never assume (unless something is true by definition, like “2+2=4” or “all unmarried men are bachelors”) that something is impossible (or necessarily true), because it renders you practically immune to new evidence to the contrary. Rather, you should leave a little epistemic space for even extremely unlikely scenarios

Doctor WhoHere’s an illustration. In an episode of the popular sci-fi TV show Doctor Who (“Midnight”), a group of tourists travel via ground shuttle to visit the famed emerald waterfalls of the planet Midnight. When the shuttle stalls and knocking sounds are heard on the hull, a scientist on board (Hobbes) tries to reassure them that no living thing could be knocking on the hull because no living thing could survive the lethal “galvanic radiation” that bathes the planet’s surface. As the evidence mounts that the shuttle is under attack by an intelligent being, the scientist simply cannot bring himself to even admit this possibility, despite its being obvious to everyone else aboard. Hobbes remains trapped in his fundamental assumption about life on Midnight, unable to assimilate even the evidence of his own eyes and ears.

Sandy Heads

Religious skeptics, believers and political pundits often fall prey to this same mistake. We could call it intellectual pride, hubris, or plain old stubbornness. Utterly convinced of our position, we blockade ourselves against new evidence like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the stand. Even if it turns out that our belief is true in this instance, the habit of ignoring Cromwell’s Rule makes us vulnerable to error in the future. Good thinking and arguing, for those who are genuine truth-seekers, must include some openness to our own fallibility.


How to Lose an Argument

I only hate losing when it comes to things I’m good at. I’m happy to concede a basketball game or a tennis match. But I hate losing arguments. Since childhood, I’ve relished a good adrenaline-surging verbal exchange. It’s fight argumentprobably one part genetic, one part environment. You know how most families have a variety of personality types who complement and balance one another? My parents , me and my sister were all hyper-assertive, stubborn fighters. You adapt to survive. You learn to like it.

My wife, on the other hand, hates conflict. So that has been challenging. And just as she thought I might be mellowing out a bit, I went and got a PhD in arguing. I probably laughed more than most people when I read humorist Dave Barry’s essay, “How to Win Arguments.” He writes,

I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends. I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don’t even invite me. You too can win arguments.

Barry tenders such advice as, “make things up,” “use meaningless, but weighty-sounding words,” and “use snappy and irrelevant comebacks.” And though Barry’s piece is satire, he gets the point across in a witty, indirect way: don’t be an ass. I wish I could say that I’ve reigned in my argument demon sufficiently and in time to avoid passing it along to my children. Now I’m just hoping one of them becomes a cutthroat attorney and cashes in on their pugilistic legacy.

argumentBut I suppose I have made a little progress, halting though it’s been. So here’s a bit of what I’ve learned. First, stop trying so hard to win. Good arguments don’t have to be winning arguments. As soon as you turn it into a battle or a competition, someone has to lose, and there is no one harder to persuade than the person reeling from your verbal violence. And isn’t persuasion what we’re after?

A little terminological clarification might help illuminate things here. The word ‘argument’ carries multiple meanings. One is relational. It is a (hopefully civil) discussion between two or more people who disagree about some point. Despite what you see on TV, or on the hidden cameras you’ve installed in my home, arguments don’t require yelling, insults and emotional outbursts. The other sense of ‘argument’ is a collection of ideas, put together in a logical way to support a conclusion. So, in this sense, we don’t have an argument with someone, we give an argument to someone. And since logic and truth reign supreme in a good argument, emotions, egos, and agendas must be set aside as much as possible. (Now, if you are a particularly adept ass, you can throw this in people’s faces. There’s nothing a highly-aggravated person loves to hear more than, “calm down!”) Here are some tips that promote good arguments, in both senses:

  • Believe you may be wrong – the foundation of all helpful dialogues; don’t even bother without it
  • Take the other person seriously – respect, seek to understand
  • Be a truth-seeker – are you honestly after truth, or just out to make your point?
  • Do your homework – don’t just expect people to take your word for it; have some evidence or research to back it up
  • Assertions vs. arguments – just saying “Joe is a moron” is not an argument
  • Know when to walk away – if you or they get too angry or disrespectful

SocratesIf I could offer just one word, it would be humility. Humility of character and intellect. Socrates himself claimed that what set him apart from other people was that he alone realized how little he knew. Perhaps this is what motivated his method of asking questions (often called the “Socratic method”) in a dialogue rather than launching into a lecture or a monologue. Because of his humility and his logical, conversational approach, Socrates persuaded people. Well, except for the Athenian officials who executed him.

crispy foodSo instead of trying to win, think about persuasion as your goal. Just as “revenge is a dish best served cold,” persuasion is a dish best served warm and crispy with tasty seasonings and a colorful garnish. It may be cliché to talk about “win-win scenarios,” but when you and your conversation partner move closer to the truth through argument, everyone wins.