Thursday, August 11, 2011

Too Easily Persuaded

Why you fool, it's the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they're all propaganda and skips the leading articles....He's our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're all right already. They'll believe anything. That Hideous Strength, C S Lewis
That quote - a favorite of mine, and on my bulletin board at work - is not just about others. It's about me. I have a problem - too easily believing what I read.

It's a pattern. Any book I pick up these days has some sort of recommendation behind it, however indirect. It is referenced in an article I read, or less often, recommended by someone whose judgment I trust. Jacket blurbs are usually a neutral, but a particular signature might bias me for or against a volume. If I am biased for, I can get swept away by the author's premise over the first quarter or third of a book. I am far less critical than I should be. If an author can get me over the first hurdle of why his unorthodox or counterintuitive idea is correct, with some plausible explanation why the conventional wisdom in the field overlooks important counterevidence, I can run with that author quite a ways.

Because the conventional wisdom in all fields turns out to miss something.
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
— Max Planck
And Planck has pretty good cred in the matter, right? If you follow a topic long enough, you will witness the received wisdom being overturned. It is not a complete chaos, that nothing is learned over time. The overturnings are usually partial. Yet they are there.

Thus, when I read a purported new solution that cherished established belief in a field, I very readily admit the possibility. This can shut down instantly if the author missteps right out of the box, or rests most of his case on the mere fact that other experts have been wrong in the past. You have to show me something. But once past that obstacle, I am too easily swayed.

The breaking of the spell eventually comes, however, because if people go on long enough they come to a subject where I actually know something. They reach too far, demonstrating that they have not done their homework in at least one area, and I begin to regard all their claims with more suspicion. It might be a secular person making some claim about what Christians, or Catholics, or Fundamentalists are like, or what the Early Church* taught; it might be something in historical linguistics, or colonial history, or psychology, or a half-dozen other fields where I actually happen to know something - not that I have been bamboozled by the conventional wisdom, but that I know enough to make an initiate's mistakes more often than an amateur's.

I had that experience reading Gregory Clark's A Farewell To Alms, which I will review soon. I kept saying to my wife this is very troubling. I should have been suspicious when he spoke so positively of Jared Diamond's fascinating but flawed Guns, Germs, and Steel. Yeah, I always look back and say "In retrospect, I shoulda..." Too late now.

Clark's book is excellent, and I'm giving it four stars if you skim it, though only 2.5 or 3 if you read closely. But troubling part is only half so troubling now. He ventured into territory about the doctrines of the Medieval Church, and then Australian Aboriginal culture which weren't wrong, exactly, but revealed that he had just picked up an idea he had read somewhere and brought it into service to give evidence for his point without looking too closely. I then wondered if much of his other evidence outside his field of specialisation was of similar quality. After that, the second half of his book was good, but not profound and earth-shattering anymore.

As my commenters here seem to have both similarities and differences from me in how they read and understand things, I am curious what your experiences are in reading books which seek to prove a point.

*And BTW, when I read an evangelical or fundamentalist who thinks that what was taught 200 years ago is "traditional" Christianity rather than some new, potentially heretical idea, I write them off immediately. Your grandfather's Christianity is not the standard for time-honored tradition.


Dubbahdee said...

I often feel that what I think seems to depend on the opinion of the last person I spoke to.

It happens far too often. I read or learn some new idea. "Aaahh" I think. "I understand it now."

I discuss with someone else. They explain what's really going on. "Oh" I think "I'm glad I got that straightened out."

And again. And again. Each new argument a fresh position.

In these fields that aren't my home territory I just don't have the chops to form any real opinions of my own (not that that really stops me).

Too easily persuaded indeed.

james said...

Typically, aside from politics, advertising, and fishing, people tend to tell the truth. In academia I'm accustomed to material that has been scrutinized and is likely to be fairly reliable as to facts, if not interpretation. (physics)
But most writing hasn't been carefully reviewed--especially news reports and blogs (I figure commentary is politics and mostly spun at best). A stint on a grand jury taught me how inaccurate the crime stories were likely to be, and the rest is likely just as poor. But it is terribly easy to just keep assuming that the paper is telling the truth--and without alternative sources how will I know? Shall I be uninformed or misinformed? Life is too short for me to do a fact-check of every story. So I wing it and provisionally accept what I read.

Sometimes, as with you, I can tell that the writer is off base when he hits something I know more about. Or when there are discrepancies in the story, like a timeline that doesn't make sense. (A story in this morning's paper was about a group of Biblical scholars claiming the Old Testament was rewritten over time: either the reporter was in way over his head or the group was full of it--perhaps both. The oldest actual manuscripts referred to were the Dead Sea Scrolls, though the story mentioned quotations by other writers.)

You may have heard that blogger Ann Althouse was attacked this week when covering a protest at the state capitol. If you watched her own video, you see that this is technically true, but not something you could get a conviction for. It makes a good story, though, and I suspect the anecdote will turn up in posts for a long time. And when I hit one I'll know somebody wasn't thorough and trusted their sources. Just like I wind up doing.

Reading alternative media doesn't help as much as I'd like, since quite a few writers have a fairly elastic conception of truth. I frequently run into 9/11 truthers in Madison, and the alternative medicine field is an even more dismal swamp.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

And James, there actually is a Great Dismal Swamp.