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A friend of mine recently sent me an article from the New York Times’s Opinion Page entitled, “How to think outside your brain”. It made me think.
The article explored the need to supplement mental capacity with other techniques and approaches in these days of information overload and, in the article, it referenced the argumentative theory of reasoning advanced by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. This theory includes the argument that humans’ faculty for reasoning is not aimed at arriving at objective truth; it is aimed at defending our arguments and scrutinizing others.
They state that this bias is enhanced where there is no or limited social contact and they argue that the solution is vigorous debates, engaged with an open mind.
They go on to propose that “When people who disagree but have a common interest in finding the truth or the solution to a problem exchange arguments with each other, the best idea tends to win”, citing evidence from studies of students, forecasters and jury members.
Interesting stuff in this world of partisan politics and social media.
The problem with this, of course, is the assumption that there is a “common interest in finding the truth” and that debates are entered into with an “open mind”.
In my previously published blog (Time for truth, February 24th, 2021), I quoted Joseph Goebbels who maintained that truth is the greatest enemy of the State:
“if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
I watch with dismay the normalisation of lies or at least the acceptance of lies that can be objectively disproved by facts within the Republican party of the USA . I see the same thing within the Conservative party in the UK – a party spearheaded by a clownish leader who regularly lies and who also refuses to sanction those who are corrupt or break laws and/or ministerial codes of action (fair enough, if he applies it to those reporting to him he would have to apply it to himself).
It strikes me that, besides COVID, we have another pandemic accelerated by Donald Trump. It’s a ‘Big Lie’ pandemic that is infecting the democratic world although Trump is but one proponent. How to heal ourselves?
If vigourous debate and open minds is the solution, you have to ask yourself how do we achieve these two goals?
In societies where free & fair elections produce governments elected by a majority of the populace (i.e. definitely not China, North Korea, Myanmar, Belarus or Russia), social media already provides a platform for vigourous debate. Unfortunately, too often it is vicious and lacking any intellectual rigour and ignores facts. But the platform is there. At least in parts of the world.
If this debate is not to simply be an echo chamber there needs to be a moderator – someone to act as the Chair of this virtual meeting or with the same, hopefully, unbiased approach as the speaker in parliamentary democracies. At the very least, there needs to be accepted rules and accountability if those rules are broken.
However, instead, we have social media that is a free for all with patently unqualified people trying to make the rules. I think the time is long overdue for legislation to establish a rules-based framework for debate and that social media as well as TV and radio “so-called” news programmes are obliged to operate within the same constraints as printed newspapers in our democracies. Not a perfect solution, but a definite advance on where we are today.
The other issue is creating an environment where “open minds” are encouraged. As we are seeing in the USA right now, there is a vast swathe of people with closed minds – on the right and the left, but the pendulum has swung and now it is mostly on the right as identified by the FBI in their briefings.
You cannot force people to have open minds. It can only come about through a prolonged period of education focused on getting people to think for themselves using facts as the basis for their conclusions and ‘vigourous debate’ should be encouraged in the process.
It may be a hopeless cause but, nonetheless, it is a worthwhile objective of any educational system and it should be spelt out in large bold letters as a primary objective of the system.
I sometimes wonder if democracy does indeed contain the seeds of its own destruction in that politicians are elected for short periods and therefore, human nature being what it is, they focus hard on being re-elected and nothing else matters.
At school I was struck hard by late 18th century Malthusian theory which posited that food production would not be able to keep up with growth in the human population and that this would result inevitably in disease, famine, war, and calamity. I sometimes feel as though I have the same pessimistic outlook on the macro political world today.
I take some comfort in the fact that Malthus did not account for the impact of technological change, so – to date – his theory has been proven wrong to a large extent. Perilous times.