I once paused an argument I was having to ask a crucial question. I learned from this experience that I should always ask this question and that conversations involving disagreement are pointless if my conversation partner responds in the negative. What is the question? It is the question discussed in this article from NPR. (If you don’t like NPR, just know that most consider NPR a low-biased news source, but it shouldn’t matter since they’re talking about empirical data.)
NPR posts that when asked if the impeachment hearings could change what they already believe about Trump, 65% said, “No.” You can go to their site to see a nice graphic of the full breakdown. Interestingly, there’s not a significant difference between Democrats and Republican responses. Both are fairly entrenched.
In a story from Vox author David Roberts, he apparently coins a wonderful term: “tribal epistemology.” He writes:
Tribal epistemology, as I see it, is when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.
In plain English, tribal epistemology is when your method for deciding what to believe is this: check to see what your tribe believes. If you are a Democrat, and most Democrats believe X, then you will believe X. Similarly, you will believe the opposite of what your enemy tribe believes. No need to check evidence or data. Just check Fox News. This is the same no matter what your tribe. I highly recommend the article.
So is impeachment pointless? Well, no, not really. It is an important political process, instituted by our founders to guard against certain abuses. But in the sense of affecting public opinion, it will sadly have little effect. My guess is that even the 25% who say that the process could change their minds aren’t really being honest, or they’re not self-aware enough to know how tribal they really are. That sounds a bit cynical, I know.
Are You A Tribalist?
I admit that many of us don’t have as much time for all that tiresome “thinking.” (“OK, that was a bit snarky, Chris.”) Seriously, I do understand that not everyone is a huge philosophy nerd like I am. Can the non-nerds really devote all the time needed to form quality opinions? Maybe not every time. Of course, W. K. Clifford offers some scathing words about this perspective:
“But,” says one, “I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments.”
Then he should have no time to believe
Strictly speaking, this is a bit silly. You can’t help believing, and of course it takes no time at all. But these are prophetic words to ponder. Words that may pull you just slightly toward greater thoughtfulness.
So maybe you don’t have time to read all the studies and documents. That’s really understandable. But luckily, you have an alternative! If you know you haven’t researched your opinion thoroughly, and you know that the issue is controversial, then just hold your opinion a little more loosely. Like those southern-rock prophets, 38 Special, sang, “Hold On Loosely.” Practically, that just means don’t talk so loud, listen to others, be willing to change your mind. It isn’t “losing” to change your mind when there’s good evidence. It’s “winning,” at least epistemically.
So what was the question I mentioned in the first paragraph? It was this:
Are you open to the possibility that you might be wrong?
If the answer is no, then the conversation probably isn’t worth having.