Humility, Courage and Belief

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Degree of Freedom News -
Feb 23, 2016

What do we know?

For example, in both the case studies section of Critical Voter, and blog entries dealing with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, I made the predication that The Donald’s lack of interest in creating an ethos bond with voters would ultimate doom his candidacy.  Similarly, in a book chapter associated with mathematical deception and in recent writing about the primaries, I sneered at political polling (or, more specifically, dinged the public for worshiping polls due to our tendency to treat quantitative information with more respect than it deserves).

The results from Iowa seemed to provide evidence to support both my anti-Trump and anti-pollster arguments.  Just after that, however, results from New Hampshire and South Carolina (which involved Trump victories in alignment with what the polls were saying) provided contradictory evidence.

So how should one deal with arguments, predictions or beliefs that might be wrong?

Intellectual Humility and Intellectual Courage

One helpful approach can be distilled from work by The Critical Thinking Foundation, an organization that’s been supporting critical-thinking education for over 30 years.  Among their many contributions to the field is a list of “Valuable Intellectual Traits,” a set of not-entirely-cognitive qualities that all critical thinkers should possess.

The first is intellectual humility, an understanding that even if what you believe is backed up by well-understood and vetted facts and held together with sound, logical reasoning, you can still be wrong.  The world is a complicated place, after all.  So even if the facts upon which your argument was based were true yesterday, that doesn’t mean they won’t be proven false today or tomorrow.  Similarly, even the most artfully constructed lines of reasoning can (and often do) go wrong – or at least need to be adjusted based on changing circumstances.

In the case of my “Trump can never win” argument, I can always retreat to the fact that this argument said that Trump can never ultimately become President, which means I never claimed he would lose every race.  But even if this safer argument stretches out the time to be ultimately proven right or wrong by several months, it is still worth thinking about the flaws in one’s own thinking, rather than continue to hold onto un-reflected beliefs that might be past their sell date.

At the same time, intellectual courage is another characteristic included in the Critical Thinking Foundation’s list of valuable traits.   Their description of this virtue talks about the courage to challenge popular beliefs, which requires you to overcome negative emotions such as fear associated with non-conformity.  But there are also negative emotions associated with holding onto your beliefs when they are challenged by anyone or anything (including facts which conflict with them), fears which can only be overcome by “sticking to your guns” and continuing to argue your case despite setbacks. 

As noted in the above description of intellectual humility, the world is a complicated place and the things worth arguing over (like politics) are complex activities that generated a constant stream of new data.  So rather than just turn this way or that with each change of circumstance, one needs the strength to maintain one’s beliefs, especially if they were reached through sound research and careful reasoning.

Fixing Our Beliefs

So how is one to balance intellectual humility (which asks you to resist the urge to insist you are right, even when you might be wrong) and intellectual courage (which asks you to stick to your guns, even if your argument receives a setback)?

Fortunately, I ended up pondering this conundrum while reading some essays by Charles Sanders Peirce, the father of Pragmatism.  (Warning: This is the point where I dive into philosophy more deeply than I would on the Critical Voter blog.)

Pragmatism, the only school of the Western philosophical tradition to have originated in America, will be making an appearance more than once between now and Election Day.  For now, however, I just want to focus on how one of the founding documents of this philosophical movement, Peirce’s The Fixation of Belief, can help us navigate the choppy waters between intellectual humility and courage.

In that essay, Peirce proposes that doubt motivates all of our thinking and that all of us constantly generated beliefs large and small in order to dispel the discomfort of doubt.  Once generated, the author describes four ways those beliefs can become fixed in our minds.

One is an a priori method which simply involves believing (or continuing to believe) things that make you comfortable.  This fits well with the human tendency towards cognitive bias which involves only accepting information that supports current beliefs while ignoring facts that conflict with preferred storylines.

Alternatively, one’s beliefs can be established by authority, such as a priesthood (secular or religious) which establishes what is allowed vs. forbidden to think within a society.  Such authority is often challenged by free spirits, many of whom come to their beliefs through tenacity, which involves settling onto a belief system and boldly holding onto it at all costs (regardless of whether it is right or wrong). 

While all three of these methods for fixing belief (a priori, authority and tenacity) have something to recommend them, none of them are of much use if your goal is getting to the truth.  If that is your purpose, Peirce proposes science as a model which treats beliefs as conditional, even as more and more experiments are performed and evidence amassed to asymptotically get us closer and closer to ideas likely to be true. 

I’ll be talking more about the effectiveness of science as a model for non-scientific thinking in the months ahead.  But with regard to the dilemma that opened this newsletter, a process that allows new information to challenge but not automatically overcome your own (ideally strong) arguments is not a terrible model to embrace.

Book News

I’ll keep the shilling brief today, starting with a shout out to those of you who have already purchased Critical Voter, two shouts to those who agreed to do an Amazon review, and three to those who have already written one, including my friend and ally Jay Heinrichs (author of the fabulous Thank You for Arguing) who generously said:

"Jonathan Haber has written the literary equivalent of a powerful vaccine. In this case, the disease is an electorate manipulated by media, politicians and zillionaires. He walks you through the logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks just in time for the next election. But Critical Voter shouldn't be used just during campaigns. The book is a clear-headed, readable guide to argumentation. College professors should consider using it in introductory logic and rhetoric courses."

Ta mate!

Review copies are still available, so anyone interested in getting a free copy in exchange for an (honest) review can request one here.

The current election continues to offer new opportunities to discuss topics in the book, which you can read at the Critical Voter blog, with some pieces published in a newly rejuvenated Huffington Post column.

I’ve also started a regular weekly column on self-publishing that you can read either on the blog on Thursdays or via LinkedIn.

What else?  Oh yes, I now have author pages on both Amazon and GoodReads.  And if I can ever get off my butt and start some real self-promotion, there might be more to say on that front as well.

In the meantime…

On the blog

Donald Trump and His Critics

Aristotle Calls the Iowa Caucuses

Insights for the Serious Self Publisher

Coin Toss Caucus

Polling the Golden Mean

Serious Self Publishing - Goals

The Death of Scalia

Critical Voter


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Amazon Author Page

Goodreads Page


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