The content on this blog is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Navy in any way.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Conviction and Rationality

Sorry for missing last week.

Anyway. Every so often, RationalWiki points me at something interesting; in this case, it's a blog post about what the author terms "epistemic learned helplessness". (I have no idea if this is a more widely accepted concept than I think it is, which is why I only say that this person uses this term.)

To put it as simply as I can, it's the idea that some people learn that they can't distinguish between an argument which simply sounds good and an argument which actually is good. (Of course, the really ironic point is that I'm not sure if my one-line summary is precisely accurate...)

I do think there's some truth to the idea that it is sometimes impossible to distinguish between a well-argued point and an accurate point. I draw a distinction between rhetoric, which I define as the skill used to convince others of a point, and reason or logic, which is the skill used to actually prove a point true. More to the point, I believe it's possible to employ the former and neglect the latter - I'm pretty sure I've made that point before, though.

This epistemic learned helplessness is a response to that, obviously; now the question becomes whether I believe it's a good response. The most general answer I have is that it is not. In fact, I believe that in tricky situations, our own ability to reason is the only thing we can trust completely. It has its limits - I've expressed enough annoyance about various cognitive biases to be quite certain of that - but awareness of those limits acts as a powerful mitigating factor. Or, at least, the most powerful mitigating factor that can be reasonably expected out of anyone. I think it's better for people to use what logic they have to come to a conclusion than it is for them to completely abandon the debate.

With that said, using that skill properly and using those mitigating factors can be very difficult and time-consuming. Certainly doing both those things to the point where it becomes possible or easy to explain it to others, particularly in the face of powerful rhetoric, can be troublesome. I'd say that that's where this epistemic learned helplessness comes from in the first place - from people who lack the time or motivation to fix the gaps in their knowledge. This is the basis of another problem; I can understand that nobody has time to exhaustively study every issue, but I also encourage them to take a position anyway and don't like the idea that those positions should be automatically discounted. That leads to a lot of people who may have poor conclusions arguing that their conclusions should be respected despite their lack of ability to defend them, as well as giving us no way to distinguish between that and people with good ideas who lack the time or background knowledge to defend them properly against hostile rhetoric.

As usual, my idea for a solution contains responsibilities for both the speaker and the listener - in fact, I very much suspect that I'm about to repeat arguments about the nature of debate from some of my previous posts. The speaker should be aware of the weaknesses of his own position - essentially, instead of using any epistemic learned helplessness as a justification to ignore the arguement, it should be used to make any listeners aware that the argument being made isn't as strong as the speaker might wish. Obviously, this will affect how much weight any of those listeners will give to the argument, and the speaker has little recourse if they dismiss it entirely beyond doing more research and presenting more evidence. At the same time, those listeners should be aware of the possibility that simple fatigue is the reason for such a declaration, rather than malice, and should endeavor to make their own points accessible and account for competing views - essentially, they should be aware of the difference between rhetoric and logic and how that can help cause that fatigue, and aim to use as much of the latter as is reasonable, particularly when they are also deploying the former skill.

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