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Please Prove Me Wrong - Elizabeth Unexplained
Lots of data but no answers
Please Prove Me Wrong
Thanksgiving brought with it a timely example of how living with Warren has ruined me for talking to almost anyone else. I remember an argument where Warren once stated that when he had an argument with someone he wanted to be proved wrong. I immediately pounced on that because I didn’t believe it. Who would want to be wrong? Doesn’t everyone want to be right? Warren then explained that if he is wrong he wants someone to prove it to him so that he can change his mind and be right. If someone proves him wrong, then he gets to learn something. This made utterly too much sense to me, and thus began my increasing frustration with talking to most other people.

The Thanksgiving example of frustrating conversation took place between Warren, George (Warren’s brother), and George’s father-in-law, with some small contributions from me. The topic was the proposed bailout of the big three US auto makers. George’s FIL thinks bailing out the big three is necessary and the rest of us think it’s a terrible idea. What was frustrating was not that George’s FIL disagreed with my position, it was that he would not back his own up in anything that resembled a logical, factual manner. He didn't offer any facts at all to back up his position and when I asked for examples to back up a point he ignored me. When Warren and George brought up facts that supported their position he countered with statements that did not follow logically at all, as if he were trying to change the sub-topic. He seemed to think that if he just restated enough sound bites he would win the argument and he did not seem interested in exploring the facts that we were presenting in support of our opinion. I've tried to reproduce a sample of the conversation, but I can't really do it justice because when recalling it from memory my mind wants to impose more logical order on his responses than there was.

I have been noticing this sort of thing more and more. Generally I encounter somewhat more subtle versions of this, mostly because I generally encounter somewhat smarter people. Even so, it bugs me. I really would like to talk to people and figure stuff out by arguing points with them, but very few people seem to actually do that any more. People don’t seem to talk about things like this with an open mind. By an open mind, I mean actually being open to the idea that you might be wrong. Mostly people nowadays seem to say they are ‘open minded’, but they seem to think that means not saying anything that might contradict the other person or hurt their feelings. That’s not what I think being open minded means. I would like it if someone contradicted me if they could back it up with facts or logic. Even if I disagree on what the facts mean, I have more respect for someone who presents a factual argument than someone who just blindly asserts their position or changes the subject, and if someone does present a factual argument I might just change my mind, and if that happened I would be more likely to be right about more things rather than just thinking I am right.
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greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: December 2nd, 2008 02:57 am (UTC) (Link)
It is a very MIT way of thinking, and yet I have this frustration with some of the folks I know from MIT too. I'll state a position on something and I'll either know they disagree based on what they've said previously or I'll suspect they disagree by their reactions, but they don't question me or offer facts for their position, but instead say nothing and/or change the subject. Maybe they have run into too many people like your coworker in Utah and are conditioned to expect people to react to questioning or disagreement as a personal attack. I find it frustrating because I'd rather have my position attacked than ignored. In his blog, psychohist often posts about politics and current events, and I know that some of my friends read his blog and disagree with his position, and yet people hardly ever even comment.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: December 2nd, 2008 05:57 am (UTC) (Link)
It is an MIT way of thinking, but only innately so for MIT type subjects - typically engineering and science. Many MIT people seem unwilling to apply the same thinking habits to political and economic issues; to some, it seems inconceivable that such thinking habits would even be applicable in those areas, and they end up just trusting whatever they hear in the popular media. They'd never do that with scientific subjects!

With respect to George's father in law, I'd say part of the issue is that he isn't an MIT person and isn't used to carefully applying logic to any subject, and he simply can't follow logic as closely and rapidly as some people can. He's worried that he'll just get bamboozled by the modern equivalent of some city slicker, so he'd rather just accept the conclusions of a source he's used to over one he doesn't trust.

I know that discussion was just one example of what you're talking about, but I'd note there were a few other factors at work in it. For my part, I was primarily interested in talking to my brother, and not to his father in law, so I was making points assuming some shared knowledge and logic patterns with my brother; his father in law can't really be blamed for failing to fully following points that were made that way. Also, the father inlaw had some of the "older generation thinks the younger generation should listen to their elders" thing going there, which failed in an amusing way when he tried to imply he had first hand knowledge of the great depression. And with respect to his ignoring you, there was definitely a lot of the "man assuming that women can't have anything to add to a serious discussion" thing going there, too.
mjperson From: mjperson Date: December 2nd, 2008 06:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
On the other hand, having spent so much of my life as a scientist, I'm pretty clear about the concept of specialization. When I'm up against some confusing questions regarding reaction rates in Pluto's atmosphere, I go ask an atmospheric chemist. I choose which chemist to ask based upon my general experience with how science education works, and I compare his answers with what my general science education tells me about chemistry, but I don't go and learn all of atmospheric chemistry. I ask an expert.

In political and military discussions, I do much the same thing. I don't "trust whatever I hear in the popular media", but I do listen to experts and in general believe their advice.

The main difference is that I have a different set of rules as to who I'm willing to call an expert.

That's one of the main things I like about the president-elect. When I hear him speak, his answer to every policy question starts out with, "Well, it's actually more complicated than that..." I'm greatly reassured by a president who seems to understand that most policy issues are actually complicated questions that are debated by experts, as opposed to things that have clear "right and wrong" answers available to anyone with enough patriotism.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: December 2nd, 2008 07:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
How many of the experts you listen to and believe get defensive when you ask them the reasons for their conclusions?
mjperson From: mjperson Date: December 2nd, 2008 08:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not many. That's one of the things that defines an expert for me.

psychohist From: psychohist Date: December 2nd, 2008 08:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
It seems to me that you are following what was characterized as "the MIT way of thinking" up thread, then. So now I'm wondering why you say "on the other hand" rather than "on the same hand".
mjperson From: mjperson Date: December 2nd, 2008 09:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Mostly, I was saying I can understand the line of thinking that leads "he'd rather just accept the conclusions of a source he's used to over one he doesn't trust."

Choosing your sources is the most important part there. But once I've chosen a source, someone who doesn't "register" as an expert to my eye would have an extremely difficult time convincing me of something contrary to what the expert said, in many cases regardless of how plausible and logical the argument sounds. This is because I expect my expert is aware of subtleties that neither I nor whomever I'm talking to is privy.

That's not an exact parallel to the case you were describing, but I see where it comes from. (The main difference of course, being how you choose your experts.)
arcanology From: arcanology Date: December 2nd, 2008 02:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
There are various subjects where I already know I disagree with people because we are starting from different axioms. On days when I don't want to try to change someone's whole worldview (that's all of them) I don't wish to have that argument.
kirisutogomen From: kirisutogomen Date: December 2nd, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Few things are as frustrating to me as an intelligent person erroneously assuming that they know what my axioms are.
arcanology From: arcanology Date: December 2nd, 2008 06:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
How many discussions do you get into where you first start by laying out your mutual axioms?
kirisutogomen From: kirisutogomen Date: December 2nd, 2008 06:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not many, which makes it even more unreasonable for someone to assume they know what they are.
arcanology From: arcanology Date: December 2nd, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well if we don't start with a layout of axioms then we have assumed something about them. I think the human standard is to assume they're like mine leading to later conversational confusion when we realize that the reason we're talking past each other is that you have not accepted Bob as your savior.

For that matter we have to assume axioms about language having meaning and logic working in order to even have a discussion.

This is probably why real philosophers (I think) lay out their axioms first. But it makes for dry conversation.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: December 2nd, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
While I do agree that most people assume everyone else shares their axioms, I don't agree that everyone assumes that, even when the axioms aren't explicitly stated. One can go into a discussion with an open mind about what other peoples' axioms are, and fill in that knowledge only after it's actually been discovered. To me, that discovery process is one of the interesting things about having a discussion.

I don't know what you consider to be a "real philosopher", but neither John Rawls ("A Theory of Justice") nor Robert Nozick ("Anarchy, State, and Utopia"), probably the most influential 20th century philosophers, explicitly laid out their axioms as such at the start of their best known texts.
chenoameg From: chenoameg Date: December 2nd, 2008 03:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I doubt that I will change someone's mind in an argument, and I don't usually expect them to change mind.

I enjoy arguing to find out where our postulates differ. Once I have done that I am done.

So it's about figuring out for me, not about convincing.
kirisutogomen From: kirisutogomen Date: December 2nd, 2008 05:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
When would you ever expect someone to change their mind, if not when presented with a thoughtfully constructed argument supported by evidence? Sure, I might change my mind on my own, if I happen to run into a fact that all by itself completely changes how I look at something, but I'm much more likely to change my mind as the result of an intelligent person putting effort into gathering supporting evidence and constructing a convincing argument.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: December 2nd, 2008 05:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, it depends on what sort of arguments you're having. If we're arguing over which movie is better, then we might well have fun figuring out which things-about-movies each of us likes, but argument is unlikely to cause me to decide I liked the movie better than I did.
mjperson From: mjperson Date: December 2nd, 2008 06:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Man is that true. After hours and hours of convincing arguments supported by great examples and even better analogies, she *still* claims to not like the vampire nazi books.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: December 2nd, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, okay, the "Ha ha ha, we'll show *you* to pretend to be a vampire! We'll drink *your* blood and see how you like them apples[*]! Oh, crud, now we're vampires." argument is always worth having, even if nobody changes their minds.

*: Maybe these are arcanology's apples of death...
psychohist From: psychohist Date: December 2nd, 2008 07:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm much more likely to change my mind as the result of an intelligent person putting effort into gathering supporting evidence and constructing a convincing argument.

I'd agree with that.

As a tangent, though, the other time when I often see people changing their minds is when it becomes advantageous to them to believe something different than they did previously. I'm not saying that's a good thing, just that it happens.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: December 2nd, 2008 04:12 am (UTC) (Link)
I often enjoy discussion, and discussions with people like dpolicar have caused me to change my mind about things. But if the choice is between ignoring me and attacking me, I'd pick ignoring me; I don't enjoy arguments which set off my "this is fighting" adrenaline reactions.
arcanology From: arcanology Date: December 2nd, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Anyway to back out to the larger question, I think that while you notice it more it's not happening any more than it used to.

Humans are not rational animals. Reason was bolted on at the last minute. Every human (I feel really confident with this totally sweeping generalization) has a set of things that they are not rational about, all that varies is the size and shape of the set.

And a lot of the most interesting questions are not in my opinion amenable to reason when you get down to it. The shoulds, the ought tos, the could wes, the weighing of the death of apples vs. the embarassment of oranges, there is no calculus for those.
From: llennhoff Date: December 2nd, 2008 07:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I find a lot of my discussions are short because once we get down to having different recollections of the facts I stop talking. My best discussions occur on IM, or at least when each party has a laptop and is skilled at google fu. Under those discussions we can get past "I saw in an article somewhere that Obama left his cousin in poverty in Africa" type assertions.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: December 2nd, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is why I prefer message board discussions; it gives me time to check factual statements, and it allows other people to ask me to provide a link or other backup. While I can't always find the same link - okay, I usually can't find the same link - I can sometimes find another link with the same data. Adina's requests have also made me a bit better about including links in the original post where I cite the facts (thanks Adina!).
From: llennhoff Date: December 2nd, 2008 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Once we get into a discussion, a good third of my posts consist of nothing more than an excerpt from a link somewhere, with the full link included to provide context. Why bother to have an opinion when someone else has done all the work for you already? :>)
From: readsalot Date: December 3rd, 2008 04:24 am (UTC) (Link)
You're welcome. I learned that behavior in some forum where people often made assertions without backing them up until the moderator started asking for links. It made everything work better, because often the complete article was different from the way the brief summary made it sound. Also, I'm now less likely to assert things without some sort of proof.
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