Tag Archives: discussion

The problem with reasoned discussion

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Why is  a straightforward logical discussion so impossible? Why do our discussion partners refuse to accept our reasoned arguments? And, if we are honest, why do we ourselves find it so difficult to accept the reasonable logic of our discussion partners?

Well, a recent article at the blog “Why We Reason” provides an answer. It is  Psychology’s Treacherous Trio: Confirmation Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, and Motivated Reasoning and reinforces what I have often felt – we are not really a rational species – more a rationalising one.

Beliefs dictate what and how we see

The article gets to the root of the matter – the psychological forces that fuel our conversations:

“While many like to believe that they have a special access to the truth, the reality is that we all see the world not as it is, but as we want it to be: Republicans watch Fox while Democrats watch MSNBC; creationists see fossils as evidence of God, evolutionary biologists see fossils as evidence of evolution; a mother sees abortion as the best thing for her daughter, and the church sees it as unholy and sinful. You get the point – our beliefs dictate what we see and how we see.”

The article goes on to discuss “a few psychological tendencies that when mixed together form a potent recipe for ignorance.”

Confirmation bias

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Confirmation bias sticks out like a sore thumb when participants in discussion cherry-pick authorities and citations to support their arguments. Well, it sticks out like a sore thumb to the discussion partner anyway (who may also be cherry-picking to confirm an opposite bias).

“Confirmation bias is exactly what it sounds like – the propensity for people to look for what confirms their beliefs and ignore what contradicts their beliefs while not being concerned for the truth.”

Hard not to fall into that trap when discussing complex issues within the constraints of limited space and time. But, nevertheless, something we should attempt to avoid.

Cognitive dissonance

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“Then there’s cognitive dissonance, which describes a “state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent.” “

The article provides an example:

“Leon Festinger introduced it in 1957 after he infiltrated and studied a UFO cult convinced the world would end at midnight on December 21st, 1954. In his book When Prophecy FailsFestinger recounts how after midnight came and went, cult members began to look for reasons for why the end of the world had not come. Eventually the leader of the cult, Marian Keech, explained to her members that she received a message from automatic writing, which told her that the God of Earth decided to spare the planet from destruction. Relieved, the cult members continued to spread their doomsday ideology to non-believers. Although Festiner’s example is extreme, all of us do this everyday. Take unhealthy food; we all know that pizza is bad for us, but we still eat it. And after finishing a few slices we say “it was worth it,” or “I’ll run it off tomorrow.” Or take smokers; they know that smoking kills but continue to smoke. And after unsuccessfully quitting, they justify their failures by claiming that, “smoking isn’t that bad” or that “it is worth the risk.” Whether it’s UFO’s, food, or smoking we all hold inconsistent beliefs and almost always side with what is most comfortable instead of what is true.”

Motivated reasoning

Dilbert - mot reason

The article describes this as “our tendency to accept what we want to believe with much more ease and much less analysis than what we don’t want to believe.”

I think religious apologists often provide the most obvious examples of motivated reasoning – probably because they are often trained in philosophy and logic. They will argue that their beliefs are based on reason and not faith, and seem to enjoy constructing logical arguments for their claims which seem to be built on simple logical steps. Yet, they gloss over, or ignore, the huge jumps in logic which are inevitably part of their reasoning.

Maybe a faith-based belief reinforced by motivated reasoning is the hardest to defeat because the proponent actually believes their arguments are completely rational.

The article concludes:

“So what’s the difference between confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and motivated reasoning? The short answer is that there really aren’t any differences. Generally speaking, they serve the same purpose, and that is to frame the world so it makes sense to us. But there are a few nuances worth mentioning. For one, motivated reasoning is like an evil twin to cognitive dissonance in that it tries to avoid it. And for another, and I quote NYU psychologist Gary Marcus who says it perfectly, “whereas confirmation bias is an automatic tendency to notice data that fit with our beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more carefully if we don’t like them than if we do.””

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Discussing science on social media

Some relevant memes I picked up on Facebook recently.

How often do discussion partners adopt this approach?:

Comfirm bias

Or when pushed for their “evidence” we have to respond with:

Citing

Finally, a citation from their recommended “scientific” source – but:

facts

Then – the “nuclear” or Mutually Assured Destruction  (MAD) approach  – scientists can’t be trusted anyway:

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Dawkins responds to a stalker – Craig gets his debate

Last year when I was at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne there was a motley little crew of creationists (3 I think) outside heckling people and demanding that Richard Dawkins debate evolution with them. Just one example of people who try to hitch their cause on to the fame and reputation of others.

And what arrogance. Dawkins was travelling throughout Australia and New Zealand for lectures and other appearances. He arrived as the last speaker at the convention having flown from Auckland where he had lectured the night before. An extremely busy man. And I am sure audiences appreciated his willingness to make these efforts to communicate his love of science and counter the childish rumours some people put out about him.

And even more arrogant – these creationists accused Dawkins of cowardice because he refused to debate them! (Actually he probably didn’t even know they existed).

Debating an empty chair

Recently we have seen a similar arrogance from William Lane Craig. Wishing to boost his audience during his current UK visit Craig demanded Dawkins debate him. Then he promoted a cowardice story and attempts to make a point by debating an empty chair instead. Childish. But also publicity seeking.

Frankly I think Dawkins was perfectly correct to turn down a debate request.  So does Sharon Hill who wrote:

“Debates are not about who has the best facts, it’s about who is the best debater – something completely different. And, debates are for the audience. If the audiences comes into the debate, entrenched in their views, they leave loving their champion even more.”

I think Dawkins has hit on a better approach with the public discussions he has promoted. Here two authorities can sit down and have a reasoned discussion, presenting evidence, outlining their differences as well as where they agree. Much better than the public punch-up of the debate format and the bloodletting pronouncements of winners and losers from the fanboys.

Craig’s dark side

I wondered if Dawkins should respond to Craig by offering a public discussion – something Craig has no skills in. But clearly Dawkins’ objections to Craig run deeper than differences over debate formats. He says in a recent article (Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig) that he just wouldn’t share a platform with the man. Because of Craig’s  “dark side, and that is putting it kindly.” Craig’s “refusal to “disown the horrific genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament.”

Dawkins quotes extensively and convincingly from Craig to justify his claim (he calls them “revolting words”). Have a look at the article for the details.

However, it strikes me that Craig has now got the debate he wanted – but not on his own terms as he usually insists. Dawkins has called his bluff. Up till now Craig was effectively stalking Dawkins. Harassing him in the hope of getting cheap publicity. Dawkins has basically ignored him

But now Dawkins has laid down a challenge. He has pointed out Craig’s support for some of the worst action and justifications of Christianity and religion.

Inevitably Craig and his many apologist fans, will retaliate. Not in the format they want. Nor on the subject they demanded. But it would be inconceivable for them to ignore the challenge.

So the debate is on. Let’s keep it clean. Dawkins has laid down his criticisms – it’s up to Craig and his supporters to put up their defence, if they can.

I think so far it is Dawkins 1: Craig 0.

Comment policy in flux

trollI have been concerned for a while about the low quality of discussion going on here. It’s basically arisen because of participation of the occasional persistent troll – and others getting trapped into troll-feeding. The result is a “pissing” completion, put-downs and emotional reactions without anything of value being added to the discussion.

One result is that genuine commenters  find it difficult to follow a proper discussion. I myself find  participation difficult and I know others who have participated in the past have been put off recently. Comments get buried so why make them? Yes – I have even had a compliant!

I know some people use blog comments as a sort of forum and would not like to discourage this or to prevent  genuine off-thread comments. Nor do I want to get into the arbitrary deletion of comments, especially those I disagree with. However, I will try a few things to see if I can improve the discussion and behaviour of commenters.

Step 1

I will now close off discussion on any post where the list of comments gets too long and/or people are caught up in obvious and pointless trolling/troll-feeding loops. Sure – the malicious troll might see this as an opportunity to move to new posts with the intention of getting them closed. But they will end up looking silly if no one feeds them!

Step2

Depends on the results, if any,  of step 1 – genuine feedback is welcome.