Occam’s Shadow

Occam’s razor sometimes casts a dark shadow.

“Speaking on the myths and misconceptions surrounding the demise of the video game manufacturer Atari, founder Nolan Bushnell notes that “a simple answer that is clear and precise will always have more power in the world than a complex one that is true.” Bushnell’s observation is not limited to the situation with Atari. When it comes to subjects that are not fully understood, it seems to be a reality of human nature that we have a propensity to prefer easy answers and simple “truths” over more complex—and oftentimes more accurate—explanations. This certainly describes the study of the history of psychology: many prefer simplistic answers that ignore inconvenient facts, rather than explanations that take into account the full range of human experience and all its fascinating complexities.

“People often display a strong preference for simple answers and a compulsion to have everything settled (rather than withholding judgment until more information is available); we seem to have an aversion toward unknowns and ambiguity. Yet subjects that we are not entirely familiar with are generally more complex than we first realize. It behooves us to resist the impulse to make snap judgments and succumb to the illusion of mastery for subjects we don’t fully understand. by prematurely making up our mind about a topic we are unfamiliar with, we risk the tendency to oversimplify and to only seek evidence that confirms our existing beliefs. withholding an opinion on new ideas until we have adequate information to make an informed judgment takes a great deal of effort and self-discipline.”

Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind
Edited by Marcel Kuijsten
Introduction, pp. 7-8

Truth-Seeking, An Engaged Citizenry

We should always take seriously the views we disagree with. Dismissing or ridiculing is a bad habit to get into. If we leave a claim unchallenged, it remains powerful. We should stand up for our convictions and we should give respect to the convictions of others, especially when there is conflict.

An example of this is the Right’s view of sexuality and family values, a set of very emotional and polarizing issues. I’ve heard the argument that the decline of the Roman Empire correlated with an increase of homosexuality. This is taken as an assumption, but it is a serious argument that shouldn’t go unchallenged. I know a variant of it can be found in some history books. There apparently were some people in the late Roman Empire, as it became Christianized, who began to complain more about sexual deviancy.

The problem with this argument, the problem we should point out again and again, is that there is no actual data that homosexuality was increasing. Also, we should endlessly repeat that, either way, correlation isn’t causation. An increase of allegations isn’t the same thing as an increase of what is being alleged. Nor does it say much about the real reasons of societal decline, which were complex and about which there is little consensus.

This kind of argument is also applied to our own time.

These past decades saw an increase of fear-mongering about violent crime even as violent crime was decreasing. A culture of fear-mongering and scapegoating rarely has much to do with objective reality. For this reason, we should never let such unjustified paranoia and blame to stand unchallenged. The point is to be persistent and stubborn, even to a fault. We should never back down when it comes to false claims. But if we believe a claim is false, it is up to us to prove it. And we should do so loudly and publicly.

That is the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy, if they care to keep the democracy they have. We should never underestimate the enemies of democracy, no matter where it comes from, whether from our opponents or apparent allies. We have to hold ourselves up to a higher standard and maintain the moral high ground.

It isn’t just about rhetoric and persuasion. We must put truth before all else, and we should follow truth wherever it leads. And if what we assumed to be true turns out to be false, we should admit to that loudly and publicly. That is the only way we can have a positive influence. We should never be afraid of what we know and what we can’t be certain of. Intellectual humility is a strength, not a weakness.

We must demand this of others, as we demand it of ourselves. It is necessary that we strive to model our own ideals. Democracy means little, if not taken as a personal set of values to live by. Principled conviction is only a moral good when based on honesty, when putting the public good before mere self-interest. What is the point of winning a debate when you lose your own integrity?

Any public good worthy of the name is based in truth and honesty. When we collectively prioritize such public good, we will finally have a democracy, not just in name and form but also in substance. The public good doesn’t necessitate agreement about everything. Disagreement can actually be useful when based on fair-minded public debate. That is what is called an engaged citizenry.

Open-Minded Learning: Humility and Passion

My ongoing blogging project has got me thinking about the act of learning. One thing that has been made clear to me once again is how learning is only possible to the extent you can admit you aren’t certain about what you think you know. If you believe you already have an answer, you won’t likely go out of your way seeking alternative viewpoints and new data.

This insight is at the heart of my mistrust of  the mindset of ideologues and true believers. Ideological belief systems have a way of becoming self-contained and self-referential, thus forming reality tunnels and echo chambers. It’s not that I don’t have biases like anyone else, but I want to hold them lightly and see them clearly for what they are. Of course, I will fail again and again. But it is the continual striving for intellectual humility that matters.

This entire project was inspired by my (trying to) discuss certain issues with others. It was evident that others felt more confident in what they thought they knew than I did. That was part of my point in disagreeing with particular people. It’s not that I certainly and conclusively know they are wrong and I am right. Rather, there are just too many complicating factors to declare anything with absolute certainty.

More importantly beyond conclusions, I realized that the basic issues were less than clear, as I wrote about the other day. Many people seem to assume that race and IQ are relatively simple things, but in reality they are highly subjective constructs and there is a lot of high level debate about how useful or unuseful are such constructs. So, I wanted to get back to first principles and build a foundation before trying to construct an analysis and argument. I needed to educate myself in order to know what made sense and what was bullshit.

Along with basic issues, there is also a lot of basic data that is less than well known. Most people know a little bit about topics like this and a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. Even among the more well informed, I’ve found their knowledge tends to be selectively narrow.

A related example came from a comment to a previous post:

The phrase “As violent crime has sharply decreased, the prison population has sharply increased. ” is not clear. Do you mean that increase of prison population has followed the violent crime decrease (e.g. first rate decreased, then prison population increased)? Otherwise, the effect is what I would perfectly expect.

This isn’t intended as a way to pick on one person. This commenter is in good company.

Yes, for many people in our society this seems like common sense and, based on mainstream data and understanding, it might be the most obvious conclusion to come to. But the problem is that, when something just makes sense to you, it decreases any motivation to challenge the status quo opinion. And the majority who share this status quo opinion won’t challenge you either. As long as you remain (self-)satisfied with what you think you know, you will never discover that what you think you know might be false. There is nothing more dangerous than a comfortable belief that explains away a complex problem with a wave of the hand.

We must demand responsibility of ourselves to dig deeper. This is yet another aspect of intellectual humility.

Never assume you know anything until you’ve thoroughly researched a topic and even then accept your limitations as a human. No, don’t just accept your limitations, embrace them and be upfront about them. Be clear about what motivates you, about why you care at all in the first place. Don’t take your bias as an unquestioned assumption. Defend your bias, if you can. Defend it with passion like it truly mattered.

This intellectual humility was perfectly expressed in the introduction to the revised and expanded edition of The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. The foe of intellectual humility is the stance of false objectivity that hides ideological self-certainty. So, I’ll end this post with the words of Gould in his defense of intellectual passion (Kindle Location 505-565):

“Scholars are often wary of citing such commitments, for, in the stereotype, an ice-cold impartiality acts as the sine qua non of proper and dispassionate objectivity. I regard this argument as one of the most fallacious, even harmful, claims commonly made in my profession. Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences— and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice.

“Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence— so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be attained ! No conceit could be worse than a belief in one’s own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools. (Phony psychics like Uri Geller have had particular success in bamboozling scientists with ordinary stage magic, because only scientists are arrogant enough to think that they always observe with rigorous and objective scrutiny, and therefore could never be so fooled— while ordinary mortals know perfectly well that good performers can always find a way to trick people.) The best form of objectivity lies in explicitly identifying preferences so that their influence can be recognized and countermanded. (We deny our preferences all the time in acknowledging nature’s factuality. I really do hate the fact of personal death , but will not base my biological views on such distaste. Less facetiously, I really do prefer the kinder Lamarckian mode of evolution to what Darwin called the miserable, low, bungling, and inefficient ways of his own natural selection— but nature doesn’t give a damn about my preferences, and works in Darwin’s mode , and I therefore chose to devote my professional life to this study.)

“We must identify preferences in order to constrain their influence on our work, but we do not go astray when we use such preferences to decide what subjects we wish to pursue. Life is short, and potential studies infinite . We have a much better chance of accomplishing something significant when we follow our passionate interests and work in areas of deepest personal meaning. Of course such a strategy increases dangers of prejudice, but the gain in dedication can overbalance any such worry, especially if we remain equally committed to the overarching general goal of fairness, and fiercely committed to constant vigilance and scrutiny of our personal biases.

“(I have no desire to give Mr. Murray ammunition for future encounters, but I have never been able to understand why he insists on promulgating the disingenuous argument that he has no personal stake or preference in the subject of The Bell Curve, but only took up his study from disinterested personal curiosity— the claim that disabled him in our debate at Harvard, for he so lost credibility thereby. After all, his overt record on one political side is far stronger than my own on the other. He has been employed by right-wing think tanks for years, and they don’t hire flaming liberals. He wrote the book, Common Ground, that became Reagan’s bible as much as Michael Harrington’s Other America might have influenced Kennedy Democrats. If I were he, I would say something like: “Look, I’m a political conservative, and I’m proud of it. I know that the argument of The Bell Curve meshes well with my politics. I recognized this from the beginning. In fact, this recognition led me to be especially vigilant and careful when I analyzed the data of my book. But I remain capable of being fair with data and logical in argument, and I believe that the available information supports my view. Besides, I am not a conservative for capricious reasons. I believe that the world does work in the manner of the bell curve, and that my political views represent the best way to constitute governments in the light of these realities.” Now this argument I could respect, while regarding both its premises and supporting data as false and misinterpreted.) I wrote The Mismeasure of Man because I have a different political vision, and because I also believe (or I would not maintain the ideal) that people are evolutionarily constituted in a way that makes this vision attainable— not inevitable, Lord only knows , but attainable with struggle.

[ . . . ]

“Some readers may regard this confessional as a sure sign of too much feeling to write a proper work in nonaction [sic nonfiction]. But I am willing to bet that passion must be the central ingredient needed to lift such books above the ordinary, and that most works of nonfiction regarded by our culture as classical or enduring are centered in their author’s deep beliefs. I therefore suspect that most of my colleagues in this enterprise could tell similar stories of autobiographic passion. I would also add that, for all my convictions about social justice, I feel even more passionate about a closer belief central to my personal life and activities: my membership in the “ancient and universal company of scholars” (to cite the wonderfully archaic line used by Harvard’s president in conferring Ph.D.’ s at our annual commencement). This tradition represents, along with human kindness, the greatest, most noble, and most enduring feature on the bright side of a mixed panoply defining what we call “human nature.” Since I am better at scholarship than at kindness, I need to cast my fealty with humanity’s goodness in this sphere. May I end up next to Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius in the devil’s mouth at the center of hell if I ever fail to present my most honest assessment and best judgment of evidence for empirical truth.”