Reason, Evidence, and Politics

In the interest of well-formed and grounded political beliefs, I’m presenting a challenge.

Give me your opinion of how President Trump is doing. 

spectrum, evidenceI’m hoping to hear a variety of perspectives, since I have friends all along the political spectrum and from a variety of backgrounds. But I have two conditions: (1) it cannot be a moral criticism, and (2) you must provide empirical evidence. Why the two conditions? Well, most people I know on both sides will agree that Trump is morally embarrassing as a president (e.g., Trump’s vulgar comments about women to Billy Bush). But those who like Trump and those who dislike him speak often about either his accomplishments or errors in office. That’s what I where I want to focus. One may still reasonably argue that a man of his moral failings should not be President, but for now, that is beside the point.

Evidence Required

The second condition prevents us from merely shouting out assertions, like:

“His foreign policy is terrible,” or

“His economic policies are good for the country.”

evidenceYou’ll have to give evidence for your claim, and I want the source–give me enough information so that I can look it up myself. Saying, “His economic policy is making the stock market go up,” isn’t enough. You’ll have to give some evidence showing how his policies have directly affected the market. Saying, “His Supreme Court nominations are hurting our country,” isn’t enough either. You have to provide some reason why you think this. And it can’t simply be the fact that the nomination is a conservative or Republican. You’ll have to be more specific. Also, if you think one single policy decision outweighs anything else he might do, you’ll have to say why you think that is a reasonable view.

Let’s Avoid Partisan Reasoning

politics, evidenceImagine you are talking to someone on the other side of the political spectrum. The only way we can communicate with those who disagree is to find common ground. For instance, we all want peace, security, quality health care and education, etc. We want to avoid policies that hurt more people than they help. So instead of saying, “That’s bad because it’s liberal,” describe exactly what sort of harm the policy ultimately causes, and it ought to (ideally) be harm we can all agree on. The reverse is true as well. Also, if a policy provides a benefit to some group, does it also have costs to other groups? And do the benefits outweigh the costs? Does a policy degrade or demean human beings? Does a policy violate the Constitution in some way?

The Goal

This post aims to assemble reasons for and against the claim, Trump is doing a good job as President. In the end, I hope to have a more well-formed belief about this claim–as to its truth or falsity. And I hope all of my readers will be challenged to step out of the echo chambers of social media and backup their views. When no one ever pushes back on our opinions, we become evidentially lazy. Let’s push one another toward evidential excellence.

So, in the comments, give me one or two reasons, with evidence, for your belief about Trump’s performance in office so far. It will be interesting to see what happens!

How To Talk To Your Relatives at Thanksgiving

thanksgiving, civil discourse

Are you dreading Thanksgiving this year? Are you anticipating arguments and tension over religion, politics, and more? Well, I have the solution! Well, not THE solution, more like A solution. Well, honestly it’s not a SOLUTION so much as a way to improve things a bit. At least from your end. Right!

In the video, I share how knowing what you believe and why you believe it can make a huge difference in conversation with Aunt Gertrude this year. You don’t have to live in fear of those pesky disagreements any more. If you find the video helpful, feel free to share!

If you’re interested in the book I mention in the video (Alan Jacobs’ How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds), there’s still time to order it before Thanksgiving!  It’s a great first step toward becoming more confident in our contentious world.

(One idea I leave out of the video: approaching a conversation with confidence is great, but humility is also crucial! Never forget that you could be wrong. Confidence isn’t the same thing as absolute, dogmatic certainty.)

 

When Speech Feels Like Violence

speech, violence, angrySpeech sometimes offends, even injures, our sensibilities. Alex Jones and the decisions of Apple and Facebook to remove his content illustrate this. But there are at least two ways speech can “hurt” us. Some hurtful speech stabs to the core of our self and our sense of dignity as a human being. Other times, speech threatens us because our inadequate cognitive defenses and filters fail to protect our psyche. I want to address the second kind of scenario because it is more “up to us” than the first kind.

Epistemic Immune System

My father endured numerous chemotherapy treatments during his battle with cancer in 2002. I distinctly recall one time when his immune system was so severely compromised by the chemo that we had to wear face masks just to come into his hospital room. And if anyone was sick–forget it! A common cold could kill him. If someone walked into the room without a mask, a nurse would immediately escort them out with a stern reprimand. Ordinary germs–ones that any healthy immune system would handle easily–constituted a threat.

epistemic immune system, defenseSomething similar goes on with our beliefs. You could say we have another immune system–an epistemic immune system. Instead of protecting us against bacteria and viruses that threaten our body, the epistemic immune system protects our “worldview” (our system of beliefs about reality) against false ideas and bad logic. When our epistemic immune system is healthy, it identifies bad ideas and bad reasoning and escorts them to the mental trash bin. It also identifies good ideas and sound reasoning and allows them through unharmed, where they find eventual integration with our worldview. If our epistemic immune system functions well, we feel more secure and less fearful  because we know our beliefs will remain healthy despite our exposure to bad ideas.

We need a healthy epistemic immune system because bad ideas really can harm us. If bad ideas gain “admission” into our belief structure, they can start to cause problems. They can cause psychological anguish or pain. They can result in actions that harm us or others. They can conflict with other (good) beliefs, or erode the foundations of our worldview. We sometimes feel this in the form of cognitive dissonance or instability. Like a man on a boat for the first time in choppy seas, we wobble around, out of balance and extremely uncomfortable. We sense that any small push might send us tumbling, our worldview crashing like a Jenga tower. Every disagreement feels like a threat, like spoken violence.

Inside and Out

speech, violence, defenseThink of your worldview as a city with two lines of defense: outside the gate and inside the gate. You control what you are exposed to “outside” the gate by choosing what to read, watch, listen to, etc. But once you have seen or heard an idea, it’s through the gate and your internal mental defenses (epistemic immune system) have to do their job. It is very, very difficult to completely control what gets through your gate. It’s like movie spoilers–if you’re using social media, it’s really hard not to find out that everyone dies in Infinity War. (See!?!?) Ideas zip through the gate of your eyes and ears so fast! This is why we need a healthy epistemic immune system on the inside.

Now here’s the real crux of the matter. When our internal defenses are weak, we are too easily thrown off balance by disagreement and contrary views. Fear and insecurity rule us. So here’s what we do: we try to shut the gate. Or we at least build a barricade in front of it to block new ideas out. How do we do this? I’ve observed (even in myself) two main strategies. For one, we avoid exposure to new ideas–we become epistemic hypochondriacs. We shun (or censor) books, websites and people who disagree with us. Secondly, we use anger or outrage as a shield. Instead of looking carefully at the idea presented and constructing a reasonable response, we try to intimidate the other party into silence with loud, abusive speech.

speech, violence, angryNow before you write a nasty email or comment, let me clarify something. Remember I mentioned two ways that speech can hurt. When you’re dealing with the first sort (see paragraph 1), epistemic defenses won’t help much. This sort of deeply abusive speech that penetrates to our core does not require careful analysis and logical counterargument. It’s what the Supreme Court referred to as “fighting words.” But the other sort of “hurtful” speech–the kind that only hurts because we lack a healthy internal defense–should not be banned or censored. The challenge lies in discerning which sort you’re dealing with.

Conclusion

So let me offer a suggestion. Cultivate a healthy epistemic immune system. This solves much of the problem. You can do this several ways.

  1. Take a course on logic or critical thinking. Great on-line resources abound as well. For starters, try here and here. If you know of a good resource, share it in the comments.
  2. Spend some time with someone who can mentor you on these skills. Find a philosopher, lawyer, or someone else who gets paid to argue, take them out to lunch and pick their brain.
  3. Lower your shield of anger and moral outrage. A shield helps in certain cases, but overuse will only impede your mental maturation. Just like a healthy physical immune system, you need exposure to “germs” over time to develop your “antibodies.” Learn to stand your ground and respond respectfully and intelligently. Read before you dismiss.
  4. process, slow, thinkingFinally, process new ideas more slowly. Unless you’re dealing with the first kind of hurtful speech, take time to digest and consider what is being said. Then you’ll be in a better position to either accept it or thoughtfully respond.

Should I Change What I Believe?

Magdalen College, Oxford, C.S. LewisIn the summer of 2017, I visited the University of Oxford and walked the flower-covered grounds of Magdalen (oddly pronounced “Maudlin”) College. I imagined myself retracing the steps of C. S. Lewis as he first wrestled with the idea of faith in God. He describes his conversion this way:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” (emphasis mine)

Lewis experienced a process that everyone goes through at one time or another. We start with a belief, we encounter something that unsettles that belief, and then we either find a way to retain our belief, or we change to a different belief. Personally, I don’t think we can directly control what we believe, but we can often indirectly influence the process. But how do we decide what to do when we feel that unsettling?

Winds of Change

weather vane, changeOnly in the last few years have I come to appreciate the expression “winds of change.” When there is a change in air pressure in one place, you feel that change in the form of air moving quickly in or out of your location. That moving air brings a change in weather. (Apologies to any meteorologists out there for my crude description.) Sometimes we feel the “winds of change” in our mental life. Something is unsettled and moving. We encounter new evidence (either in the form of an experience or a set of reasons presented to us) against our view of something and our belief becomes unstable.

The question is, what should we do when we feel that unsettledness? It seems there are several possibilities:

  1. Do nothing. I can take a passive stance and just let the winds of belief blow me wherever they will. Change? Sure! Anytime, any belief.
  2. Stick my head in the sand. I can ignore the new evidence and distract myself from thinking about it further, until I can hopefully just forget about it. Then I will avoid anything that reminds me of that evidence.
  3. Investigate. I can check out the new evidence and test it’s quality or seek corroboration. I can also seek counter-evidence (reasons to doubt the new evidence) and additional evidence for the position I currently hold. Once this is done, I can move toward a new position or affirm my current one.

Something about the first approach appeals to us. It takes no effort, for one. It also sounds so flexible and open-minded. But while flexibility and open-mindedness can be virtues, you can have too much of a good thing. One danger with this approach is that some evidence is misleading evidence.

evidence, knifeEver read a good murder mystery where someone tries to frame another person for the murder? Jenna plants a bloody knife in Jake’s house, she transfers money into his bank account, etc. The average person sees these “clues” and believes Jake must be guilty. But a good detective doesn’t form conclusions quite so quickly or easily. They hold out, they investigate and test the evidence. This sort of reactionary believing happens on social media all too often. We swallow “fake news” or posts that turn out to be hoaxes or just mistakes. So, it seems better to form beliefs more carefully, but without losing flexibility and open-mindedness.

Believe it or not, approach #2 also has a virtue. If all your current beliefs are true, then the head-in-sand technique can help you avoid ever forming a false belief! But it will be at the cost of ever learning any new truths. And besides, I know that my current stock of beliefs isn’t perfect. #2 isn’t as safe as it seems.

Investigation

Of the three options, #3 provides the best way to ensure you are moving toward the truth, or at least toward the most reasonable belief. If you care deeply about having true and reasonable beliefs, then it is wise to invest some time in investigation when you experience an “unsettling” in your worldview.

san francisco, beliefsMy senior year in college, I flew west for a summer mission initiative in San Francisco. My room mate in the dorms, Jasper, didn’t at all fit into the box of what I thought an evangelical college student should be. He had long, crazy hair, dressed in a sort of “grunge” style, and (gasp) listened to secular music! So I thought I was more “mature” than Jasper in my Christian faith, since I wasn’t as “worldly.”

By the end of the summer, however, it became clear that not only was Jasper more mature in his faith than I was, but he emerged as the spiritual leader of the entire mission. Over those 6 weeks, I watched Jasper carefully, and I saw enough evidence in his life to “shift” my belief about secular music. When I returned home from California, I had changed my view and finally felt the freedom to re-embrace my favorite band, U2. (I know how ironic that sounds, given that U2 are very Christian in their message.)

I’ve also experienced times where my view has been challenged, and after investigation, I’ve held my ground. I’ve even moved to a position of “I don’t know” on a few topics. It’s not about which position you take, it’s about responsibility. I want to be responsible with my mind and my beliefs, the same way I try to be careful what I eat and assimilate into my body. (I wrote about another time I changed beliefs here.)

Flexible, but Discerning

earthquake, beliefsI actually went back to live in California for a few years, about a decade after that summer mission. Loved it. Except for the earthquakes. When you feel that rumbling, and your picture frames start rattling off the shelves, it’s quite unsettling.

Sometimes we feel that rumble in our worldview when we have new experiences and talk to people with different perspectives. But we don’t have to respond in panic and fear. Quality buildings are strong, but also flexible, to better withstand quakes. We need that, too. Stay flexible and ready to adjust as needed when the quake comes. We can stop and decide to take some time to investigate. “It is the mark of a mature mind,” Aristotle says, “to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.” Hold that idea (and the evidence) in your hand and give it a good hard look. Then you can rationally, responsibly discern whether to toss it, table it, or move toward it.

Fear and Reason

subconscious, fear, politicsDo your subconscious fears influence your political beliefs? As much as we might all like to think that our political positions are the result of careful, rational investigation, they aren’t. A fascinating article published in the Washington Post last November has been making the rounds on social media, claiming (roughly) that feelings of safety will cause more liberal political leanings. Before you dismiss this as nonsense or fake news, hear me out and then take a few minutes to read the article. It should take about 6 minutes. Here’s the link.

First of all, this kind of research is inductive, which means that it does not prove the conclusions — it only gives us good reasons to accept the conclusions as true. Second, this research only identifies one potential factor in how our political inclinations are formed. Many other causal factors go into explaining why people vote or believe the way they do. Third, this study uses statistical reasoning to conclude things about the general population, which does not automatically mean these things are true of you, personally. And fourth, I don’t see anything wrong with admitting that my emotions and fears sometimes influence my beliefs. I’m human, after all. And this doesn’t mean that all my thinking falls short of being ideally rational, just that some of it may. In other words, don’t freak out.

The Takeaway

open hands humilityWhat I takeaway from research like this is the importance of intellectual humility. We are finite, fallible creatures who possess many biases and mental shortcomings. Thus, we ought to hold more lightly to many of our beliefs, remaining open to new evidence and amendment. Secondly, research like this moves me to reflect on my own reasons and fears, and to honestly ask myself if this rings true. It’s ok to be wrong. It’s not ok to let my hubris get in the way of correction and growth.

The Past Is Irrelevant

beliefs, support, past, historyI frequently engage in conversations about beliefs. It’s kinda my thing. People often ask about the history of my beliefs or of someone else’s beliefs, especially religious beliefs. Everyone likes to construct a coherent story that will help them make sense of another person’s views. “That’s how they were raised,” or “they’re just reacting against such-and-such,” or “they went though some trauma that caused them to change their beliefs.” While I do find all this psychologically interesting, when it comes to evaluating a person’s beliefs, it is irrelevant.

In the video, I don’t explain why the past is irrelevant. The past doesn’t matter because of the nature of epistemic justification. Put simply, the quality of your beliefs depends on how well your reasons support them. And the only reasons that count now are the reasons you have now. You may have had different reasons in the past, and maybe you’ll change your reasons in the future, but none of that matters now.

An Analogy of Support

bridge, column, support, beliefs, reasons Imagine a bridge being supported by stone columns. The integrity and strength of that bridge depends on the quality of the support now. The columns may be crumbling now, even if they were strong in the past. Conversely, a bridge that was decrepit last year but has been completely rebuilt is strong now, even though it was weak in the recent past. When you drive over the bridge, all you care about is the condition of the supports now. So it is with beliefs and their supports. And we can evaluate this objectively with standards of logic.