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.

Bad Thinking, Part 3: The SI Jinx

missouri chase daniels SI jinx
Not Pete Rose

Pete Rose, infamous Cincinnati Reds baseball player, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August of 1978, in the midst of a 44-game hitting streak. That same week, his streak ended. Numerous other examples over the years foster the belief that players or teams who achieve SI cover-status will experience the “SI Jinx” soon thereafter. A pair of local favorites: the University of Kansas football program appeared on the November 2007 cover after an 11-0 start, and lost the following week to rival Missouri; Missouri then graced the cover in December 2007 after reaching their first #1 ranking, and lost the following week to Oklahoma. The SI Jinx strikes again!

Coincidence or curse?

SI jinx sports thinkingTo this day, many athletes shun appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In January 2002, Kurt Warner declined to pose for the cover, so the magazine ran a photo of a black cat instead. The headline: “The Cover that No One Would Pose For.” Are their fears well-founded? If it isn’t a curse, then what explains the bizarre coincidence?

Thankfully, Daniel Kahneman provides enlightenment. In Thinking, Kahneman describes a statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean.” (Ch. 17) According to Wikipedia,

Regression to the mean is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first.

In other words, if an athlete performs at a remarkably high level one week or one season, the following week or season is very likely to be worse, and vice versa. I imagine that if SI started featuring especially low-performing athletes on their magazine cover, we would soon discover a SI Cover Miracle!

Getting Lucky

regression to the mean kahneman jinxOne reason for our error in judgment here: we fail to account for luck. In many endeavors, luck plays a huge role, including sports, academic testing, and business success. Our performance in these areas tends to follow a curve, with frequent average performances (relative to personal skill), and few examples of either really awful or amazing performances. Luck (or the lack) is usually what accounts for the “outlier” performances on the edges of the curve. But we attribute this to skill or other non-causal factors instead.

dice luck jinx thinkingKahneman relates an interesting anecdote about a flight instructor who claimed that praise for good performances was detrimental, but intense criticism for bad performances was helpful. Why? Because when he yelled at a pilot for an especially poor flight, the pilot performed better the next time out. And when he praised him for “clean execution,” he got worse. The instructor failed to realize that this was statistically predictable and probably attributable to pilot luck. A classic example of regression to the mean.

The Upshot

happy luck jinx regression to the mean kahnemanIn my daily life, identifying regression to the mean can help me avoid emotional whiplash. I know that an amazing day is likely to be followed by an average day, so I’m not as disappointed when this occurs. Similarly, a really horrendous day will probably be succeeded by a better day, so there’s hope! Substitute whatever professional metrics you like for “day,” and you can apply the same truth in your life: sales figures, enrollment, attendance, stock performance, child behavior, or team wins.

I also remember to include luck, or perhaps unpredictable Divine intervention, in my evaluation of performance. This means that my absolute best and worst performances are probably not solely attributable to my skill. I should look at my average as a better gauge for evaluation, rather than taking the “outlier” as the norm.

bad luck jinx thinking kahnemanFinally, we can do away with belief in jinxes. Even if you could show a high correlation between some odd event and bad performance, this would not prove causation. Interestingly, while 37% of SI cover stars were “jinxed,” 58% maintained or improved their performance following their cover appearance, according to an 1984 study. The jinx myth endures because of yet another kind of “bad thinking:” the negativity bias! We tend to remember negative events and give them more weight in our reasoning.

I still plan to give away a copy of Kahneman’s book to a lucky subscriber! Sign up for Ground Belief updates with your email for a very high chance to win (I only have 2 subscribers as of yesterday).

Bad Thinking, Part 2: Mood Matters

Law and Order: SVU. (Start the video at 9:36, but you may have to watch some ads.) Notice the shift in mood.

Scene: detectives asking a restaurant owner (Lyla) to look at the photographs of two criminal suspects, a man and a woman. Seemingly frustrated, she looks at them but doesn’t recognize either.

Lyla: I’m not really good with faces. I’m more of a word person.

Detective #1: Here’s a word. Focus.

[Lyla abruptly hands the photos back to the detective and walks away, obviously offended.]

Detective #2: What my partner means to say is that maybe you’re just underestimating yourself.

Lyla: [still mad] I don’t think so.

[Detective #2 turns on the charm and gets her to smile.]

Detective #2: Take a look at these photos one more time. Please.

Lyla: [sighs, smiling] This guy I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I’m pretty sure she was here that night.

This scene illustrates beautifully what scientists have discovered through tools like the Remote Association Test. A good mood raises intuitive abilities, but lowers logical attentiveness. A bad mood makes us less prone to errors in logic, but it’s like a wet blanket over intuition and creativity. Feeling nervous and criticized by the first detective shut down the intuition of the restaurant owner. But after her mood brightened, she easily recalled the face of the woman in the photo, because this is a function of intuitive System 1.

Implications

So what does this mean for us, as thinkers? Being aware of your mood can help you maximize your cognitive abilities. First, when you’re engaging in a creative or intuitive task, you’ll perform better if you’re in good spirits. If, prior to such a task, you find yourself in a foul mood, it would be wise to either, (a) put off the task (if possible) until your mood lightens, or (b) take some steps to improve your mood. Here’s one of my favorite TED talks on this subject that includes some very practical suggestions at the 10:56 mark.

 

Second, when you’re engaging in a System 2 task—analysis, problem solving, etc.—you’re likely to perform better if you don’t stroll into it casually. If you’re a more happy-go-lucky or optimistic person, it might be wise to stop and shift gears. Try some cognitive warm ups to crank up your System 2 and heighten your concentration. Work two or three simple multiplication problems, count backward from 100, or pick a word and find as many rhyming words as you can. (More “warm ups” here and here.)

Faith and Cognitive Modes

What about religion? Does mood matter when contemplating religious and metaphysical ideas? Yes. It matters because it affects which System is predominant. So which mode— intuitive System 1 or analytical System 2—is most appropriate for religious thinking? I’ve often wrestled with this question myself and I think it depends on your goals and on your context. If you’re already committed to a faith tradition like Christianity, System 2 is helpful when studying theology or when discussing religion with someone outside the faith, to give two examples. But worship, by contrast, requires shifting away from skepticism and toward openness. I find that praying and listening to a sermon are activities best done with a sense of receptivity, seasoned with a pinch of healthy skepticism, putting off the bulk of analysis for later.

skeptic faith thinkingFor those who identify as atheist or agnostic, it may not be as appropriate to suspend your skeptical guard, unless you find yourself desiring to believe. You should always leave open a small window of possibility, regardless, as I have written about elsewhere. But I have met atheists and agnostics who find belief unattainable given their current set of evidence. When I share about my own experience of God, they sometimes express a desire to have such an experience, in the hope that it would finally allow them to believe. For them, I would suggest partially lowering their System 2 defenses and cultivating an intuitive System 1 mind-set. Relationships, even between oneself and God, are best experienced through this mode, rather than by logical analysis.

Faith and Mood

What this implies for mood management is that religious believers will probably experience the full benefits of worship when their mood is good. Grief and lament remain important aspects of a full-orbed Christian faith, and perhaps research may eventually tell us how those moods affect our cognitive mode. But in general, I’m inclined to believe that a positive outlook enhances prayer and openness to hearing from God. On the other hand, if you only ever approach religion with your analytical System 2 on full alert, you may actually be blocking out the evidence needed to support belief. I recognize that there are some conundrums here, but despite this, there can still be good reasons for belief or for deciding on a course of action.

(On October 23, I will conclude the series by giving away a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow to one lucky subscriber to my blog. So, sign up with your email (on your right at the top of this post) before the 23rd to be eligible.’)

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.