The Dissatisfaction of a Restless Mind

In dealing with ideologues, it makes one wonder what makes some people so strongly trapped in a worldview. Plenty of people are passively stuck in all kinds of assumptions, belief systems, and reality tunnels. That is normal human behavior, but others take it to a whole new level. It becomes an active defense of dogma.

Being a skeptic and a freethinker doesn’t mean never falling into various cognitive biases and ideological blinders. It simply means constantly climbing back out of the holes one constantly falls into.

I was thinking about myself, in this context. These past years I’ve come to question and doubt so much that I held to in the past. When I grew up, I learned many things from my parents and other authority figures, from public education and mainstream media. I didn’t think to question most of it at the time, for I didn’t even understand that there was something to question and alternative perspectives from which to question.

What forced me to change my mind so much over these past decades?

Take genetics, as an example. In high school science, I was taught a hereditarian view of genetics, not unlike what many HBDers and other race realists hold. I wasn’t taught much, if anything, about environmental influences, gene-environment interactions, multiple gene interactions, epigenetics, etc. Public education didn’t give me a great preparation for scientific understanding. But I can’t blame just public education. That hereditarian view was a fairly dominant view of our entire society for a long time. Much of the most challenging research, especially about epigenetics, is relatively recent.

I had to study on my own to realize there were other views and other evidence. But I had to be motivated to do so. What makes some people motivated and others not?

I could say that I’m just more intellectually honest or more curious. That would be self-flattering. The truth is more psychologically fundamental. I’m a basically dissatisfied person. I have a way of seeking out or otherwise attracting data that contradicts what I think I know and people who disagree with what I believe. I climb out of holes of my own bad thinking, if even just to to climb into new holes to find out what it looks like from there. I couldn’t imagine spending my entire life sitting in the same hole.

I like to blame this on my depression. I’m simply an unhappy person. My restless mind precedes any expression of intellectual curiosity. My mind was always restless, long before I took up intellectual pursuits. I feel incapable of being an ideologue, not for reasons of internal strength and inherent honesty, but because I lack something many other people possess. It is a weakness, as far as it goes for being successful in this society. A permanent state of dissatisfaction is not a blessing.

I’m not the smartest person in the world. I’m not the most learned. The main thing I’ve got going for me is dissatisfaction, for whatever its worth. Given enough time, I will question and doubt anything and everything… sometimes to the point of cynicism and despair. It isn’t a pleasant fate. If I must suffer this dissatisfaction, I will force ideologues to suffer along with me by constantly challenging them. It is only fair.

Open-Mindedness: Pros & Cons

There are a few labels that describe my relationship to belief and knowledge: weak atheist, agnostic, weak agnostic, militant agnostic, agnostic gnostic, gnostic, Fortean, epistemological anarchist, skeptic, zetetic, philosophical pessimist, truth-seeker, and I’m sure I could add a few more. Basically, I trust both personal experience and intellectual inquiry more than collective belief, trust facts and rationality more than appeal to authority.

I, of course, consider my position to be superior to the alternatives… and, besides, it’s just my way of seeing and thinking about the world. Ever since a child, I’ve always been a questioner… and conventional answers tend not to satisfy me. I don’t have a choice but to be who I am. But, for the sake of argument, let me present the pros and cons of my attitude.

There are two main pros that come to mind.

First, I have no particular beliefs that I have to defend at all cost. This makes it easy to have a debate with someone who feels compelled to defend their beliefs. Having no absolute beliefs gives me room to shift my position.

Second, this gives me a more open attitude toward knowledge. I don’t have to worry about new data challenging my assumptions. In fact, I seek out new data to challenge my assumptions. In a sense, I can’t lose a debate as long as I maintain this open position because I have nothing to lose. Any debate is an opportunity to learn something I didn’t previously know and I’ll simply adapt my arguments to that new data.

Now for a couple of cons.

First, this may seem like an easy position to maintain, but it actually takes a lot of effort. I never accept anything on faith or on authority. I’m constantly seeking out new info and new perspectives. I’m constantly double-checking what I think I know and verifying claimed facts. This is an endless effort. I might spend hours or even days researching a single point. I honestly try to understand all sides. Because of my values and ideals, I hold truth above all else even when the person I’m debating doesn’t. Depending on time and energy, I’ll often try to understand someone else’s perspective even if they merely dismiss mine.

Second, it can be psychologically difficult living with endless questions and no certainties. At least, I live in a liberal community and so don’t have to defend my lack of belief and ideological certitude. I’m very glad I wasn’t born into a religiously fundamentalist society. Still, even in a liberal community, maintaining a lack of belief isn’t easy. There is something in human nature that makes us want to grasp onto a worldview. A sense of certainty (even when that certainty is vague and/or superficial) can be one of the most comforting things in the world. There is a reason religious people tend to be happier and live longer. Thinking and questioning might be good for social progress, but it’s not necessarily good for personal gain.

I’d say that, if you want to be happy and healthy, you probably should choose to be a closed-minded ideologue. But such isn’t the choice most of us face. I doubt most people choose their psychological attitude towards the world. Such things are a combination of genetics and experiences (especially early experiences), both of which aren’t generally within our control. I couldn’t choose to be a closed-minded ideologue even if I tried. Maybe in the future they’ll have drugs and genetic engineering that will help people to question less and think less independently. Until then, we freethinkers will have to suffer the burden of rationality (it’s similar to the white man’s burden except that it’s open to all races).

Denialism: Science and Public Debate

I’ve just come across the name of Michael Specter.  He has received some attention lately because of his book Denialism.  In the following video, Specter explains why he didn’t include the Global Warming issue in his book.  He said that it’s too complex of an issue and so requires more than just a chapter in a book.  I’d argue back that complex issues are precisely where his argument is weakest.  The allegation of “denialism” implies that it is always or usually clear who is doing the denying and that some people are intellectually above such cognitive weaknesses and failings.  Basically, what Sepcter leaves out is the psychological insight about how and why people think the way they do.

I noticed this review of Michael Specter’s book Denialism.

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Battling the Skeptics by Darshak Sanghavi

Science utopians can be touching in their naïveté, much like high school chemistry whizzes who try to figure out why the popular kids never pay them any attention. But they fail to appreciate a salient point: scientists may get how the atoms of the universe combine, but they’re often dweebs in the real world. In any event, there are two ways to deal with scientific illiteracy: take a long, hard look at the forces that repel so many from science, or throw up your hands and write people off as fools.

Michael Specter, a science and public health writer for The New Yorker, shows little interest in the first approach in his pugnacious new book, “Denialism,” which carries the ominous subtitle “How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” He devotes chapters to anti-­vaccine zealots, purveyors of organic foods, promoters of alternative medicines and opponents of race-based medicine, accusing each group of turning “away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”

[…] But Specter isn’t much interested in the roots of denialism, much less in engaging productively with it. While his book brims with passion and many interesting facts, he repeatedly pulls rabble-rousing tricks — this in a book that accuses others of forgoing rational debate — and his annoyance is rarely focused.

[…] Specter used to be a denialist himself. […] Here, Specter could have explored how even a prestigious science writer like himself was seduced by the highly unlikely possibility that coffee enemas might cure pancreatic cancer. (After all, the flip side of denialism is faith, which isn’t always bad.) But rather than attempting to ­understand his former fellow denialists, he pushes them out of reasoned conversation, declaring, “Denialism is a virus, and viruses are contagious.”

[…] In his haste to sort people into two bins — either scientifically enlightened or in denial — Specter overlooks an important trend: for better or worse, people are more skeptical of authority than they used to be and want to think for themselves, which includes grappling with the minutiae of science. Not so long ago, for example, patients rarely questioned doctors before undergoing surgery or taking their pills (for example, estrogen replacement therapy to prevent heart attacks), a blind obedience to authority that arguably cost many more lives than, say, vaccine refusal does now. What we are seeing is the democratization of science, not the rise of denialism. […] The list goes on. Specter has written a frustrated book about “denialism” but could just as well have described the hopeful signs of a new era.

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Specter sounds like he might be in the same camp as the new atheists.  My problem with this type of writing isn’t that some intelligent points aren’t made but rather the author’s attitude.  Calling someone (or a group of people) a “denialist” seems more polemical than helpful.  If used carefully and sparingly, it could be a useful term.  However, using it to dismiss those who disagree with you just contributes to the conflict.  The fact of the matter is that science is never black and white.

For example, I’m fine with labelling as a denialist someone who entirely denies Darwinism because they believe the Bible has greater authority than peer-reviewed science.  But I’m not fine with labelling as a denialist someone who argues against Darwinism by pointing out a scientifically plausible alternative theory.  Questioning Darwinism doesn’t a denialist make.  Intelligent public debate demands that people point out the weaknesses and unanswered questions of the prevailing paradigm.

Also, I’m not in favor of science being used to dismiss the everyday experience of people.  Scientific consensus shouldn’t be used to bludgeon people for disagreeing and to keep the public in line.  There are many things science can’t answer and scientists and new atheists should be more humble in the limits of present knowledge.  Most people have weird experiences such as UFOs and ghosts.  Even though science isn’t able to research such phenomena, doesn’t mean science can deny such experiences because then scientists would themselves fall into the trap of denialism.  Many things exist in the world that can’t be controlled in a lab that don’t happen on a regular enough basis to be predictably studied.  However, respectable people including scientists have observed many things that they can’t explain.  Anecdotal experience doesn’t prove anything, but many scientific discoveries begin with anecdotal experience.

Unsatisfying as it may be, there are always more questions than answers.  Some questions may seem stupid.  But if it weren’t for seemingly stupid questions, there would be a lot slower pace to the gaining of new scientific knowledge.

Anyways, scientists are as easily swayed by ideological beliefs and paradigmatic assumptions as the rest of us.  The power of science is in the overall scientific view that evolves over generations.  The underlying complaint that I sense from the new atheist types is that scientific progress is too slow, but I’m doubtbul that it can be speeded up to any great degree.  Scientific progress is dependent on even larger trends of social development.  And for scientific knowledge to develop science itself along with scientists will have to develop as well.

Some other related pieces: