Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Trying to talk skillfully about thinking skills with Tea Party Activists

Trying to talk skillfully about thinking-skills with Tea Party Activists

This week before a jam session, a sax-playing acquaintance was quoting Glenn Beck's three-hour special about George Soros being a Demon Puppet Master.  When I challenged her arguments, she surprised me. Rather than defending her position with the obstinacy I find in most Glenn Beck supporters, she said, "Jeremy, I really need your help with this. You're educated. I don't know what to believe or what to fear."  She meant this, as is apparent in her follow-through. We've been emailing ideas back and forth since.

She's a brilliant musician but didn't get much schooling. School, at its best improves our skill at shopping among interpretations of evidence or drawing conclusions from inconclusive data, much of which is second-hand. As Dan Willingham points out in his useful book "Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom" a lot of the improvement comes simply from accumulating more data.  Data helps, for example when ominously, Glenn Beck warns his staunchly anti-communist viewers that George Soros was behind the overthrow of governments. Knowing that this is a reference to Soros making campaign contributions to the anti-communists revolutions in Eastern Europe helps in assessing the quality of Beck's interpretation.

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We have to take people's words for lots of things because we don't have time to find out much first hand.  But whose word should we take?

Some computer viruses enter your system disguised as precautions against computer viruses. Playing on your fears, they urge you to click on them for your protection. As soon as you do, the virus enters your computer. Glenn Beck expresses deep concern about protecting his fellow citizens. So did Winston Churchill who did in fact protect them. So did Pol Pot who in fact didn't, killing more than 1.5 million of them. It's hard to tell the criminals from the crime-fighters. Both can exhibit passionate concern for saving you.

I've sent the sax-player some articles and clips. I've also suggested that she listen to the music of Glenn Beck's voice as though she were sitting right next to him.  She's got "big ears," as we musicians say. She knows how to listen for authenticity and she herself speaks authentic passion through her sax. She can decide whether Beck is passionate or just acting passionate like a computer virus dressed up as virus protection.

I've also pointed to the contrast between revelation and science as tools for promoting an interpretation. Revelation means "it was revealed to me," as when religious people have revelations that change their lives forever. The scientific alternative is favoring the interpretation that best fits the available objective data. Arguing scientifically entails giving reasons, all inconclusive but nonetheless supportive, demonstrating why some interpretations fit better than others.

This contrast between revelation and science also manifests in the contrast between arguments from passion and arguments from warrants. 

If revelation is "Believe me. I saw it with my own eyes!" passion is "Believe me. I feel it with my own heart!" Passion can get so intense it becomes a form of coercion:  "I won't stop being intense and in your face until you admit that I'm right." Arguments from intense passion compel us to surrender our own powers of discernment: "I'm sorry, but I feel so intensely about this, you'll just have to get your mind out of my way. I'm taking over!" Watch a cranky pre-teen protest against a perceived slight and you'll see argument from passion in its purest form. 

In argumentation theory, warrants are the various ways we demonstrate the relative fit of an interpretation to data.  Some warrants are weak and some are strong. We weigh the warrants in favor of different interpretations and then we buy the interpretation that we bet fits best. Often it's hard to tell which interpretation fits best, but that shouldn't be confused with all interpretations being equally fitting.  For example, you and I might debate interpretations of what happens to our consciousness after we die, but we would agree that both of our interpretations fit better than one that claims our consciousnesses gets converted into key lime pies.

Technically, "I saw it with my own eyes!" and "I feel it with my own heart" are both warrants. They're just not very strong ones. As a musician and a careful interpretation-shopper I find the melodramatic Mr. Beck's passions coercive and tinny.  My new sax-playing friend is still deciding.

 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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