We Are Empathy

Recall how Ptolemy used epicycles to accurately predict the movements of objects in the sky, yet he had no clue about the actual nature of those movements. We’re still in the Ptolemaic phase of social science.

Paul Bloom had an article come out in the WSJ today, The Perils of Empathy. It’s on the limitations and problems of empathy, a topic he has been writing about for years (it’s not even his first WSJ article about it).

The above quote is from the comments section, a response posted by Anthony Cusano, and it captures my own basic thought. As others noted, Bloom’s understanding of empathy is limited and so it’s unsurprising he comes to the conclusion that is limited. So, the problem is Bloom’s own confusion, based on narrow research and simplistic analysis.

There isn’t much point in analyzing the article itself. But I realize that such articles have immense influence given the platform. I’m always surprised that someone like Bloom, a respected ivy league academic and professor, would have such a superficial grasp. I’d like to think that Bloom realizes it’s more complex and that he is using rhetoric to make a point, not that this generous interpretation makes it any better.

Even though I love social science, this demonstrates a constant danger of trying to make sense of the research produced. Evidence is only as good as the frame used to interpet it.

Bloom is mixing up the rhetoric, perception, and experience of empathy. He treats empathy as something rather simple, maybe confusing it with mere sympathy. And he does this by ignoring most of what empathy consists of, such as cognitive empathy. Along with many of his allies and critics, he never puts it into its largest context. Human civilization would never exist without human empathy. This is because humanity is inseparable from empathy, as we are inherently a social species and there is no sociality without empathy.

There isn’t any grand significance in my writing specifically about Bloom’s article. The main thing wasn’t what was in it but what was left out of it.

The last thing I wrote earlier in the week was about the hive mind in terms of entrainment. There would be no human families, groups, social identities, communities, nations, etc without empathy. None of this is solely or even primarily dependent on empathy as direct emotionality and personal sympathy. An army marching has a shared identity that doesn’t require any given soldier to empathize with any other individual soldier, much less every single soldier. The empathy is with a sense of group identity that transcends all individuality. The soldiers in marching form grok this collective identity as a muscular bonding that, in the moment, is as real as their own bodies.

Empathy is the foundation and essence of everything that is human. It precedes and encompasses every other aspect of our humanity, including rational compassion. Posing empathy as a choice is irrelevant. There is no choice. Empathy just is, whether or not we use it well. We can’t objectively study empathy because we can’t separate ourselves from it. There is no outside perspective.

Let me conclude with some words of wisdom, “We are Groot.”

* * *

I Could Say that Paul Bloom is a Callous Idiot, But I Empathize With Him…
by Nathan J. Robinson, The Navel Observatory

Thinkfluence Man Pretends To Think Empathy Is Bad
by Albert Burneko, The Concourse

Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and Morality
by Denise Cummins, Psychology Today

The one thing that could save the world: Why we need empathy now more than ever
by Roman Krznaric, Salon

Welcome to the empathy wars
by Roman Krznaric, Transformation

Can You Run Out of Empathy?
by C. Daryl Cameron, Berkeley

Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy
by Jeremiah Stanghini, blog

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding
by John Payne, EPIC

Uncommon Talents: Research & Critical Thinking

I’m a person who likes to do research on topics that interest me, but I like to do research in general even when it isn’t a topic that interests me too much.  If I’m making specific argument in a discussion, I want to make sure that I’m not being biased and that I’m using confirmed data. 

The problem is that I find few other people are willing to do the same kind of research.  Most people just believe what they want to believe.  Many people even seem to assume that the facts would agree with their opinions if they ever bothered to look at the facts.  This kind of righteous self-certainty annoys me, but even moreso it just perplexes me.

I realize people have limited time to do research for themselves.  That is fine.  But if that is the case, then shouldn’t the person refrain from making any absolute claims.  Instead of making declarations, shouldn’t they use language such as “I think…”, “I suspect…”, “My best guess is”…, “It would seem reasonable…”, or “I could be wrong, but…”.

Often, though, it seems that the less data someone has the more certain they declare their ‘knowledge’.  What bugs me even more is that many people are willing to directly dismiss or generally act dismissive towards the data that another person presents.  They’ll ask you to cite every fact you present all the while refusing to present any facts of their own.  It’s easy to be dismissive.

In response, I’ll sometimes do the detailed research and present specific quotes from specific sources, but it usually doesn’t change anything.  If the person truly wanted to know the facts, then they could’ve done the research for themselves.  Or could they?  I sometimes think that many (most?) people lack certain intellectual skills such as how to research data and how to think critically about it.  Research takes effort and understanding it well requires much intelligence and education (which would include self-education).

I think, however, there is also a systemic failure of education in the US.  I went to public schools.  I can tell you that I learned very little of my intellectual skills from my schooling.  Most of what I learned came from my parents and from simply reading and thinking a lot.

There is also would seem to be a cultural factor, but I’m not certain as my knowledge of other cultures is limited.  What I’ve observed is that many people believe it’s more reasonable to deny something without facts than to claim something without facts.  This is obviously wrong as any denial of a claim is simply another claim stated in the negative.  To deny a belief in God is no more reasonable than to claim a belief in God.  Neither theist or atheist has objective data, and so the only reasonable conclusion is agnosticism. 

All in all, I do think atheists and scientific-minded people tend to be more reasonable than those prone to religious extremism (whether it’s Christian fundamentalism or New Age woo).  Most scientists in the world agree that Darwinian evolution and Climate Change are accurate appraisals of reality.  This is based on science from around the world funded by many different organizations.  However, religious folk and other rightwingers are willing to deny the evidence without offering any of their own counter-evidence.  To put it simply, this isn’t a rational response.

How can the rationally-minded educated class reach this large segment of society that gladly throws out all evidence without even looking at it much less trying to understand it?  Even intelligent rightwingers will deny science which is even more bewildering.  I guess it makes sense that unless you’ve been educated in science you’re less likely to understand science.  Getting a college education (in business management for example) won’t necessarily make you any better prepared for understanding science.  Most of the people who go into scientific fields are liberals (with independents being the next largest group and conservatives being a small percentage).  The question is why do conservatives mistrust science?  The only way you could mistrust science is by mistrusting objectivity altogether because science is the best method humans have in determining objective facts.

It might not be that most people are incapable of being rational.  It could be that either they have psychological reasons not to use rationality in certain contexts.  Psychological research shows two key factors: (1) People are good at compartmentalizing different cognitive functions and different parts of their lives, and (2) People are good at rationalizing their behavior and conclusions.  The unconscious mind has more influence on us than does our conscious mind.

The question, then, is why do some people become more capable of intellectual skills or at least more identified with being an intellectual.  What makes someone willing and able to question social norms and ‘commonsense’ assumptions?  What motivates someone to look critically upon all statements?  If this isn’t a ‘natural’ ability (i.e., not common), then why do a few people learn to excel at it?  And why are some people willing to admit intellectual limitations (their own and that of the human species in general) and some aren’t?  Will intellectual ability always be held by a minority?  Is it possible to teach the average person effective critical thinking skills?  If it is possible, why have we as a society chosen not to do so?

Re: All Evidence to the Contrary

The article excerpt below explains so much.  I’ve heard of this kind of research, but it’s always nice to see further confirmation.
 
The problem with irrational beliefs isn’t a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of respect for knowledge.  What a liberal education offers is teaching the young the importance of critical thinking skills.  And if not taught at a very young age, a person is unlikely to ever learn these skills and values.  It’s very dangerous to allow any particular dogmatic ideology to control or limit education (and this is particularly true for non-rational ideologies such as espoused by fundamentalists).
 
Society, at present, has several problems in this regard.  Liberal education has gone out of favor and critical thinking skills aren’t seen as having practical value in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism.  To the degree that critical thinking is valued, it is extremely compartmentalized in particular fields rather than being the overall basis of public debate.  For these reasons, the average person has both limited ability to think critically and limited respect towards this ability.
 
Although the article doesn’t mention it, I would add that this issue relates to moral development.  The ability to think critically isn’t merely a cultural value.  Rather, it’s a specific stage of development that any intelligent human will develop towards if given the opportunity (and the encouragement).  Morality is related to the ability to think abstractly and to think outside of the constraints of subjective experience.  Morality and intellectuality are co-dependent factors in human development.  So, when a child has their intellectual potential stunted by ideology and lack of liberal education, their moral ability also becomes stunted at a lower stage of development.
 
All Evidence to the Contrary
Lane Wallace
The Atlantic
 
In a recently published study, a group of researchers from Northwestern University, UNC Chapel HIll, SUNY Buffalo and Millsaps College found that people often employ an approach the researchers called “motivated reasoning” when sorting through new information or arguments, especially on controversial issues. Motivated reasoning is, as UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman put it, the equivalent of policy-driven data, instead of data-driven policy.
 
In other words, if people start with a particular opinion or view on a subject, any counter-evidence can create “cognitive dissonance”–discomfort caused by the presence of two irreconcilable ideas in the mind at once. One way of resolving the dissonance would be to change or alter the originally held opinion. But the researchers found that many people instead choose to change the conflicting evidence–selectively seeking out information or arguments that support their position while arguing around or ignoring any opposing evidence, even if that means using questionable or contorted logic. 
 
That’s not a news flash to anyone who’s paid attention to any recent national debate–although the researchers pointed out that this finding, itself, runs counter to the idea that the reason people continue to hold positions counter to all evidence is because of misinformation or lack of access to the correct data. Even when presented with compelling, factual data from sources they trusted, many of the subjects still found ways to dismiss it. But the most interesting (or disturbing) aspect of the Northwestern study was the finding that providing additional counter-evidence, facts, or arguments actually intensified this reaction. Additional countering data, it seems, increases the cognitive dissonance, and therefore the need for subjects to alleviate that discomfort by retreating into more rigidly selective hearing and entrenched positions. 
 
Needless to say, these findings do not bode well for anyone with hopes of changing anyone else’s mind with facts or rational discussion, especially on “hot button” issues. But why do we cling so fiercely to positions when they don’t even involve us directly? Why do we care who got to the North Pole first? Or whether a particular bill has provision X versus provision Y in it? Why don’t we care more about simply finding out the truth–especially in cases where one “right” answer actually exists?
 
Part of the reason, according to Kleiman, is “the brute fact that people identify their opinions with themselves; to admit having been wrong is to have lost the argument, and (as Vince Lombardi said), every time you lose, you die a little.” And, he adds, “there is no more destructive force in human affairs–not greed, not hatred–than the desire to have been right.”
 
So, what do we do about that? If overcoming “the desire to have been right” is half as challenging as overcoming hate or greed, the outlook doesn’t seem promising. But Kleiman, who specializes in crime control policy and alternative solutions to very sticky problems (his latest book is “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment”), thinks all is not lost. He points to the philosopher Karl Popper, who, he says, believed fiercely in the discipline and teaching of critical thinking, because “it allows us to offer up our opinions as a sacrifice, so that they die in our stead.”
 
A liberal education, Kleiman says, “ought, above all, to be an education in non-attachment to one’s current opinions. I would define a true intellectual as one who cares terribly about being right, and not at all about having been right.”
 
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If you’d like to see this issue discussed from a different angle, read this earlier post of mine: