I Want to be Right

Not long ago I was in a Facebook debate and my interlocutor accused me of just wanting to be right. 

Interesting accusation.

Of course I want to be right. Why else would we be having this argument? But, you see, he wasn’t accusing me of wanting to be right but of wanting to appear right. Those are two very different things. One of them is just about the best reason for debate and argument you can have. The other is just about the worst. 

Anyone who has spent a lot of time arguing on the Internet has asked themselves what the point of it all is. The most prominent theory is the speculator theory: you will never convince your opponent but you might convince the folks watching. There’s merit to that, but it also rests on a questionable assumption, which is that the default purpose is to win the argument by persuading the other person and (when that fails) we need to find some alternative. OK, but I question if we’ve landed on the right alternative.

I don’t think the primary importance of a debate is persuading speculators. The most important person for you to persuade in a debate is yourself.

It’s a truism these days that nobody changes their mind, and we all like to one-up each other with increasingly cynical takes on human irrationality and intractability. The list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia is getting so long that you start to wonder how humans manage to reason at all. Moral relativism and radical non-judgmentalism are grist for yet more “you won’t believe this” headlines, and of course there’s the holy grail of misanthropic cynicism:the argumentative theory. As Haidt summarizes one scholarly article on it:

Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

Jonathan Haidt in “Righteous Mind”

Reasoning was not designed to pursue truth.

Well, there you have it. Might as well just admit that Randall Munroe was right and all pack it in, then, right?

Not so fast.

This whole line of research has run away with itself. We’ve sped right past the point of dispassionate analysis and deep into sensationalization territory. Case in point: the backfire effect. 

According to RationalWiki “the effect is claimed to be that when, in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger.” The article goes on:

The backfire effect is an effect that was originally proposed by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in 2010 based on their research of a single survey item among conservatives… The effect was subsequently confirmed by other studies.

Entry on RationalWiki

If you’ve heard of it, it might be from a popular post by The Oatmeal. Take a minute to check it out. (I even linked to the clean version without all the profanity.)

Click the image to read the whole thing.

Wow. Humans are so irrational, that not only can you not convince them with facts, but if you present facts they believe the wrong stuff even more

Of course, it’s not really “humans” that are this bad at reasoning. It’s some humans. The original research was based on conservatives and the implicit subtext behind articles like the one on RationalWiki is that they are helplessly mired in irrational biases but we know how to conquer our biases, or at the very least make some small headway that separates us from the inferior masses. (Failing that, at least we’re raising awareness!) But I digress.

The important thing isn’t that this cynicism is always covertly at least a little one-sided, it’s that the original study has been really hard to replicate. From an article on Mashable:

[W]hat you should keep in mind while reading the cartoon is that the backfire effect can be hard to replicate in rigorous research. So hard, in fact, that a large-scale, peer-reviewed study presented last August at the American Political Science Association’s annual conference couldn’t reproduce the findings of the high-profile 2010 study that documented backfire effect.

Uh oh. Looks like the replication crisis–which has been just one part of the larger we-can’t-really-know-anything fad–has turned to bite the hand that feeds it. 

This whole post (the one I’m writing right now) is a bit weird for me, because when I started blogging my central focus was epistemic humility. And it’s still my driving concern. If I have a philosophical core, that’s it. And epistemic humility is all about the limits of what we (individually and collectively) can know. So, I never pictured myself being the one standing up and saying, “Hey, guys, you’ve taken this epistemic humility thing too far.” 

But that’s exactly what I’m saying.

Epistemic humility was never supposed to be a kind of “we can never know the truth for absolute certain so may as well give up” fatalism. Not for me, anyway. It was supposed to be about being humble in our pursuit of truth. Not in saying that the pursuit was doomed to fail so why bother trying.

I think even a lot of the doomsayers would agree with that. I quoted Jonathan Haidt on the argumentative theory earlier, and he’s one of my favorite writers. I’m pretty sure he’s not an epistemological nihilist. RationalWiki may get a little carried away with stuff like the backfire effect (they gave no notice on their site that other studies have failed to replicate the effect), but evidently they think there’s some benefit to telling people about it. Else, why bother having a wiki at all?

Taken to its extreme, epistemic humility is just as self-defeating as subjectivism. Subjectivism–the idea that truth is ultimately relative–is incoherent because if you say “all truth is relative” you’ve just made an objective claim. That’s the short version. For the longer version, read Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word

The same goes for all this breathless humans-are-incapable-of-changing-their-minds stuff. Nobody who does all the hard work of researching and writing and teaching can honestly believe that in their bones. At least, not if you think (as I do) that a person’s actions are the best measure of their actual beliefs, rather than their own (unreliable) self-assessments.

Here’s the thing, if you agree with the basic contours of epistemic humility–with most of the cognitive biases and even the argumentative hypothesis–you end up at a place where you think human belief is a reward-based activity like any other. We are not truth-seeking machines that automatically and objectively crunch sensory data to manufacture beliefs that are as true as possible given the input. Instead, we have instrumental beliefs. Beliefs that serve a purpose. A lot of the time that purpose is “make me feel good” as in “rationalize what I want to do already” or “help me fit in with this social clique”.

I know all this stuff, and my reaction is: so what?

So what if human belief is instrumental? Because you know what, you can choose to evaluate your beliefs by things like “does it match the evidence?” or “is it coherent with my other beliefs?” Even if all belief is ultimately instrumental, we still have the freedom to choose to make truth the metric of our beliefs. (Or, since we don’t have access to truth, surrogates like “conformance with evidence” and “logical consistency”.)

Now, this doesn’t make all those cognitive biases just go away. This doesn’t disprove the argumentative theory. Let’s say it’s true. Let’s say we evolved the capacity to reason to make convincing (rather than true) arguments. OK. Again I ask: so what? Who cares why we evolved the capacity, now that we have it we get to decide what to do with it. I’m pretty sure we did not evolve opposable thumbs for the purpose of texting on touch-screen phones. Yet here we are and they seem adequate to the task. 

What I’m saying is this: epistemic humility and the associated body of research tell us that humans don’t have to conform their beliefs to truth and that we are incapable of conforming our beliefs perfect to truth and that it’s hard to conform our beliefs even mostly to truth. OK. But nowhere is it written that we can make no progress at all. Nowhere is it written we cannot try or that–when we try earnestly–we are doomed to make absolutely no headway at all.

I want to be right. And I’m not apologizing for that. 

So how do Internet arguments come into this? One way that we become right–individually and collectively–is by fighting over things. It’s pretty similar to the theory behind our adversarial criminal justice system. Folks who grow up in common law countries (of which the US is one) might not realize that’s not the way all criminal justice systems work. The other major alternative is the inquisitorial system (which is used in countries like France and Italy).

In an inquisitorial system, the court is the one that conducts the investigation. In an adversarial system the court is supposed to be neutral territory where two opposing camps–the prosecution and the defense–lay out their case. That’s where the “adversarial” part comes in: the prosecutors and defenders are the adversaries. In theory, the truth arises from the conflict between the two sides. The court establishes rules of fair play (sharing evidence, not lying) and–within those bounds–the prosecutors’ and defenders’ job is not to present the truest argument but the best argument for their respective side. 

The analogy is not a perfect one, of course. For one thing, we also have a presumption of innocence in the criminal justice system because we’re not evaluating ideas we’re evaluating people. That presumption of innocence is crucial in a real criminal justice system, but it has no exact analogue in the court of ideas.

For another thing, we have a judge to oversee trials and enforce the rules. There’s no impartial judge when you have a debate with randos on the Internet. This is unfortunate, because it means that If we don’t police ourselves in our debates, then the whole process breaks down. There is no recourse.

When I say I want to be right, what am I saying, in this context? I’m saying that I want to know more at the end of a debate than I did at the start. That’s the goal. 

People like to say you never change anyone’s mind in a debate. What they really mean is that you never reverse someone’s mind in a debate. And, while that’s not literally true, it’s pretty close. It’s really, really rare for someone to go into a single debate as pro-life (or whatever) and come out as pro-choice (or whatever). I have never seen someone make a swing that dramatic in a single debate. I certainly never have.

But it would be absurd to say that I never “changed my mind” because of the debates I’ve had about abortion. I’ve changed my mind hundreds of time. I’ve abandoned bad arguments and adopted or invented new ones. I’ve learned all kinds of facts about law and history and biology that I didn’t know before. I’ve even changed my position many times. Just because the positions were different variations within the theme of pro-life doesn’t mean I’ve never “changed my mind”. If you expect people to walk in with one big, complex, set of ideas that are roughly aligned with a position (pro-life, pro-gun) and then walk out of a single conversation with whole new set of ideas that are aligned under the opposite position (pro-choice, anti-gun), then you’re setting that bar way too high.

But all of this only works if the folks having the argument follow the rules. And–without a judge to enforce them–that’s hard.

This is where the other kind of wanting to “be right” comes in. One of the most common things I see in a debate (whether I’m having it or not) is that folks want to avoid having to admit they were wrong

First, let me state emphatically that if you want to avoid admitting you were wrong you don’t actually care about being right in the sense that I mean it. Learning where you are wrong is just about the only way to become right! People who really want to “be right” embrace being wrong every time it happens because those are the stepping stones to truth. Every time you learn a belief or a position you took was wrong, you’re taking a step closer to being right.

But–going back to those folks who want to avoid appearing wrong–they don’t actually want to be right. They just want to appear right. They’re not worried about truth. They worried about prestige. Or ego. Or something else.

If you don’t care about being right and you only care about appearing right, then you don’t care about truth either. And these folks are toxic to the whole project of adversarial truth-seeking. Because they break the rules. 

What are the rules? Basic stuff like don’t lie, debate the issue not the person, etc. Maybe I’ll come up with a list. There’s a whole set of behaviors that can make your argument appear stronger while in fact all you’re doing is peeing in the pool for everyone who cares about truth. 

If you care about being right, then you will give your side of the debate your utmost. You’ll present the best evidence, use the tightest arguments, and throw in some rhetorical flourishes for good measure. But if you care about being right, then you will not break the rules to advance your argument (No lying!) and you also won’t just abandon your argument in midstream to switch to a new one that seems more promising. Anyone who does that–who swaps their claims mid-stream whenever they see one that shows a more promising temporary advantage–isn’t actually trying to be right. They’re trying to appear right. 

They’re not having an argument or a debate. They’re fighting for prestige or protecting their ego or doing something else that looks like an argument but isn’t actually one. 

I wrote this partially to vent. Partially to organize my feelings. But also to encourage folks not to give up hope, because if you believe that nobody cares about truth and changing minds is impossible then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And you want to know the real danger of relativism and post-modernism and any other truth-adverse ideology? Once truth is off the table as the goal, the only thing remaining is power.

As long as people believe in truth, there is a fundamentally cooperative aspect to all arguments. Even if you passionately think someone is wrong, if you both believe in truth then there is a sense in which you’re playing the same game. There are rules. And, more than rules, there’s a common last resort you’re both appealing to. No matter how messy it gets and despite the fact that nobody ever has direct, flawless access to truth, even the bitterest ideological opponents have that shred of common ground: they both think they are right, which means they both thing “being right” is a thing you can, and should, strive to be.

But if you set that aside, then you sever the last thread between opponents and become nothing but enemies. If truth is not a viable recourse, all that is left is power. You have to destroy your opponent. Metaphorically at first. Literally if that fails. Nowhere does it say on the packaging of relativism “May lead to animosity and violence”. It’s supposed to do the opposite. It’s advertised as leading to tolerance and non-judgmentalism, but by taking truth off the table it does the opposite.

Humans are going to disagree. That’s inevitable. We will come into conflict. With truth as an option, there is no guarantee that the conflict will be non-violent, but it’s always an option. It can even be a conflict that exists in an environment of friendship, respect, and love. It’s possible for people who like and admire each other to have deep disagreements and to discuss them sharply but in a context of that mutual friendship. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. 

Take truth off the table, and that option disappears. This doesn’t mean we go straight from relativism to mutual annihilation, but it does mean the only thing left is radical partisanship where each side views the other as an alien “other”. Maybe that leads to violence, maybe not. But it can’t lead to friendship, love, and unity in the midst of disagreement.

So I’ll say it one more time: I want to be right.

I hope you do, too.

If that’s the case, then there’s a good chance we’ll get into some thundering arguments. We’ll say things we regret and offend each other. Nobody is a perfect, rational machine. Biases don’t go away and ego doesn’t disappear just because we are searching for truth. So we’ll make mistakes and, hopefully, we’ll also apologize and find common ground. We’ll change each other’s minds and teach each other things and grudgingly earn each other’s respect. Maybe we’ll learn to be friends long before we ever agree on anything.

Because if I care about being right and you care about being right, then we already have something deep inside of us that’s the same. And even if we disagree about every single other thing, we always will.

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