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How Our Fixation on Evidence and Reason Blinds Us to Content and Meaning (Twitter Thread as Essay)


I struggle at times to succinctly articulate ideas that in my mind are, dare I say, self-evident. Concepts that seem to me obvious common sense are sometimes exceedingly difficult for others to “get.”

I don’t mean to say that I’m right and they’re wrong, or that I’m smart and they’re not. Far from it.

I only mean to say that absent Pensieves from Harry Potter or Mind Melds from Star Trek one of the most vexing challenges in the realm of ideas is apparating a nuanced concept from the mind of one person into that of another.

This is especially true of concepts that go against popular opinion, or that challenge foundational presumptions that undergird popular opinion. Attempting to convey such ideas can feel Quixotic. In this thread I’m going to try (again) anyway.

The concept I’m about to describe is complex and nuanced. It identifies flaws in something that almost everyone takes for granted as an unalloyed good, but that often is a chimera: a thing that is hoped or wished for but in fact is illusory or impossible to achieve.

I ask the reader, therefore, to bear with me and employ active listening. Let go of for and against. Read without judgement, for the purpose of understanding rather than for the purpose of constructing rebuttals. Try to acquire an intuitive sense of the concept I describe.

Here it is: Evidence and reason *as we currently use them* are not what they’re cracked up to be. Our faith in them as the only, or best, way forward at the expense of other factors is misguided, and may be exacerbating rather than ameliorating partisan rancor.

We all have access to the same evidence, and we all use reason to defend our viewpoints. But the political left and right often stake out positions that are antithetical to one another. If evidence and reason are what we think they are then how can this be?

Obvious answers to this question include bad reasoning, flawed evidence, and shallow tribalism, in which we fight the other side just because it’s the other side.

But in my view those answers are insufficient. They alone don’t, can’t, explain what’s happening. Something else is going on. What is it?

I think I know what it is. But when I say it you’re likely to think I’m nuts. Your active listening abilities will be challenged. But please, bear with me. I think I’m on solid ground. I can, and will, explain.

The political left and right inhabit different realities but presume they inhabit the same, single, reality. The underlying presumption upon which almost all social discourse rests is false.

The political left and right are best understood as psychological profiles, analogous to introversion and extroversion. And like introversion and extroversion, each profile perceives, understands, and situates itself within the world differently.

The two profiles internalize different conceptualizations of what the world is, can be, and should be, and the influence they can, and should, exert over it.

The differences include disparate conceptualizations of things as elemental and fundamental as the nature and purpose of 1) knowledge and reason, 2) social processes and the role we play in them, 3) human nature.

But we use evidence and reason as if none of this is true. We think and act as if we all internalize the exact same conceptions of the nature of knowledge, reason, social processes, human nature, and our ability and responsibility to influence all of it.

And then we become furious when the other side doesn’t “get it.” And since we don’t understand *why* they don’t get it, what else can we think but that they must be in some way malformed, even evil.

It gets worse. The way we understand and employ evidence and reason even isolated within our respective realities is deeply flawed in several additional ways.

First, we fail to grasp that there are multiple types of reasoning, each of which is a legitimate path to truth, each requiring a specific type of evidence unique to it.

We tend to revere only “scientific” reasoning and evidence as the one true path. In so doing we blind ourselves to entire lines of inquiry and entire realms of knowledge.

Second, we fail to grasp the true meaning and gravity of the first principle of moral psychology, “Intuition comes first, reasoning follows.” It is this: All moral and social reasoning is motivated reasoning.

Third, we conflate rationality with rationalism. The former is the use of sound logic. The latter is the belief that logic and reasoning are the same thing, and that our own reasoning reveals to us the world as it truly is. This belief is known as The Rationalist Delusion.

But wait, there’s still more. It gets even worse.

One of the two main psychological profiles enjoys near-total hegemony in the industries and institutions that control the culture; education, entertainment, and media. It decides what counts as valid evidence and reasoning and what doesn’t. It decides what’s valuable and what isn’t.

No clearer, more eloquent, statement of this difference in outlooks can be found in recent memory than the book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, by Chris Arnade.

Arnade calls the profile that’s in control of the culture the “Front Row.” It values intelligence, education, credentials, and intellectual accomplishment; things that are measurable, even tangible. Their WEIRD thinkers.

The other faction, Arnade’s “Back Row,” values things that are less measurable; things like family, neighborhood, community, looking out for one another and having each other’s back; i.e., social capital. They’re holistic thinkers.

Arnade is not the only researcher to have noticed these differences. Others include Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, and Arthur Herman.

Boxing Out is a concept in sports in which a player positions himself between an opposing player and the ball so as to prevent the opposing player from getting it.  In this photo the player in white is boxing out the player in blue.

The Front Row is boxing out the Back Row from the culture, forcing the Back Row into a corner, and forcing it to avail itself of the last vestige of power over which it has any influence at all. The Ballot Box.

This explains the election victories of Trump and Brexit. It explains the Gilets Juanes of France, and even recent conservative wins in Australia.

It seems to me that almost all of this flies under the radar of the majority of current social discourse, which assumes we all inhabit the same reality, and value the same things, when we really, truly, don’t.

It feels like we’re whistling past the graveyard. Or, to mix my metaphors, it feels like we’re so completely fixated on the storms on the surface of the cultural ocean that we’re oblivious to the Gulf Stream current that’s carrying all of us along.

I cringe whenever someone says they’re a defender of evidence and reason. I can’t help thinking, “In service to which reality, exactly?”

This includes good people and groups who I know and like, whose hearts are in the right place.

Heterodox Academy is one example. It seems to be earnestly trying to do the right things for the right reasons, but it ALSO seems to be all Front Row all the time.

Helen Pluckrose is another example. She is as miffed as anyone at the sloppy, ill-informed, misguided, evidence and reasoning of the uber Woke.  She’s a strong advocate of evidence and reason. I often think “YES!” in response to things she writes.

Helen’s not alone in this. It seems like many people who are traditionally on the left now appear to be aligned with the right in their opposition to Wokism. But it feels temporary, the spirit of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

But Helen has also stated that she wants to use evidence and reason to defeat conservatism. Her advocacy of evidence and reason begins to seem less like common ground and more like a Trojan Horse through which the Front Row will continue is domination of the Back Row.

So I’m concerned. We’re fixated on surface issues and ignoring the powerful forces that drive them. This keeps us in a vicious cycle that seems impossible to break out of.

I know of no group better positioned and better equipped to help us break out of the cycle than @HdxAcademy. I implore them to work to help people see beyond the surface issues, become more aware of the currents underneath, and help us break free from them.

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This essay originated as a Twitter thread, available here and here.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “How Our Fixation on Evidence and Reason Blinds Us to Content and Meaning (Twitter Thread as Essay)

  1. great analysis, I will be printing this one out. lots to think about…solid thinking.

    Like

    Posted by Candy Mercer | September 10, 2019, 5:15 pm
  2. “And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.” David Hume

    As Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier have demonstrated, from the Greek Sophists to contemporary politicians, reason has never been used to discover truth, only to win arguments.

    I’m doing my best not to be negative, so in the spirit of understanding, you are conflating two different categories. Reason does not now, nor ever has, led to truth. Only critical thinking/scientific method/innovation lead to truth.

    This post kinda takes on a Fox News quality to it in that it decries the bias in the non-fox media while completely ignoring their own galactic built-in bias. (Note – I’m criticizing both sides equally for their bias).

    You derive your lineage from Aristotle and he stated that “the fact is the starting point,” not your biased, error-filled emotional and instinctual responses and opinions about the world. I really think you need to re-read the The Righteous Mind again and ponder how it might apply to you and not just the other tribe on the left.

    Like

    Posted by tomrossman2017 | September 8, 2019, 4:20 pm
    • The assertion that “only critical thinking/scientific method/innovation lead to truth” is false. That you assert it suggest to me that you’ve completely missed the point of the essay.

      Like

      Posted by The Independent Whig | September 8, 2019, 4:32 pm
      • As I am quite possibly the only open-minded, non-linear person reading this blog, please enlighten me. What other methodologies can lead to discovering the truth of a proposition?

        Also, the point of the essay is just like the point of every one of your non-technical essays which is everyone else is biased and even though I thoroughly riddled with bias and error, let’s pretend that I’m not.

        BTW – do you recall when you endorsed my non-linear approach and then rejected it when you realized that it applies to you as well? This is the answer that you seek, but you won’t accept it because you love your bias and tribalism far more than you love truth.

        Like

        Posted by tomrossman2017 | September 8, 2019, 4:48 pm
      • I am strongly disinclined to engage with you due to your history of hearing what you want to hear rather than what’s actually being said.

        There are multiple paths to truth, only one of which the scientific method. https://theindependentwhig.com/2016/03/03/evidence-type-must-match-assertion-type/

        And within the scientific method, it is impossible to derive first principles directly from data. New ideas come from intuitive flashes of insight; gut feelings; a “sense” of the situation. None other than Albert Einstein noted this, as described in “The Myth of Scientific Objectivity.” https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/11/the-myth-of-scientific-objectivity

        Ironically, your critique of my essay is an example of exactly that which it is pointing out. You’re inadvertently helping to prove my point.

        Like

        Posted by The Independent Whig | September 8, 2019, 5:24 pm
      • Yet again, instead of addressing the argument, you post some right-wing ramblings that have nothing to do with what the issue is.

        You stated: The assertion that “only critical thinking/scientific method/innovation lead to truth” is false.
        I, with intellectual humility, asked you name what other methodologies led to truth.

        You named zero. Yes, there are different forms of logic, but they all fall under the rubric of critical thinking.

        Just to clarify, I never said intuition, insight and senses are not employed. Einstein and Newton were incredibly creative and intuitive, but their building blocks were facts, not dogmatic and tribal assumptions.

        Yes, I am an example of what you were referring to in the article because I , like John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Isaac Newton, Aristotle and Albert Einstein believe that facts and evidence are the only starting point. There are absolutely other creative processes that enter into it which is why everything is experimented on and tested which leads to falsification or non-falsification. Einstein’s theory was widely admired but it wasn’t until 1919 solar eclipse when its predictions proved to be true.

        Basically what you’re saying is that if someone doesn’t agree with you prima facie, as all your right wing dogmatists and tribalists do, then they are not ‘getting it.” How is that any different than the left wingers you attack so frequently? They think the exact same you do, that you just don’t “get it.”

        Like

        Posted by tomrossman2017 | September 8, 2019, 6:12 pm

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