Sunday, May 15, 2022

We Don't Reason Very Well

There is considerable advantage in believing what those around you believe, which we can all sense psychologically, but it likely has survival benefit as well, or it would not be so common. The Confucians and a few classical Greek philosophers thought worshiping the gods of those around you was a route to citizenship, camaraderie, and happiness. 

It is hard to tell sometimes whether we believe something because we have thought it through, or because we have artfully adapted our beliefs to suit the crowd we aspire to belong to. Rationalisation is so automatic that we should all fear it. It is unattractive and dangerous to ascribe motives to those we disagree with.  But sometimes when we know them, we can sense instantly where they will come down on a new issue. Who do you want to be?  Do you want to be one of the smart ones, one of the tough ones, one of the righteous ones, one of the artistic ones, one of the kind ones?  We have a set of beliefs already prepared for you.  We even have subtlety upon subtlety, of beliefs that show you are one of the open-mind or tolerant ones.

While I certainly will advocate for ideas, I find I am much more drawn to being the referee, irritating many. It is worth noting how often people believe contradictory things. We believe the schools suck, but shout down all proposed changes. We would just feel better if schools, or churches, or libraries, or houses looked like they used to look. In a perverse bit of emotional reasoning, we think "because those hymns are proven to last, if we want our church to last we have to keep doing that thing we just know will last. All these new things? Why, they just go away.  People don't really like them. Those churches don't thrive." Confirmation bias solidifies this. Remember that new church that went in after the Presbyterians moved out?  That didn't last, did it?" Uh, neither did the Presbyterians, which is why the church was available.

I think it came up strongly during covid, where there seemed an underlying wistfulness for how things were in the good old days. We didn't used to have to do X or Y, and we were all perfectly fine.  I occasionally would get this from patients, or their friends and families.  He didn't have any of these problems until he started coming to this hospital.  He had a job and a girlfriend and didn't have any of these crazy thoughts.  You know what I think? I think these medicines made him crazy. Sure, like our overfull hospital's overworked staff went out on the street looking for perfectly normal people to ruin. 

There is an element where people just don't want to upset the applecart unless things are acutely bad right in their faces.  I recall that the Clinton White House made much of the fact that most people didn't want him impeached. But most of the people who thought that also didn't think it would affect them much if he was.  They had a mild preference for things remaining the same. Speaking of "impeached," there was also a continuing misunderstanding of what the word meant, then and now. People think it means "removed." So, do you want Clinton to have to be questioned? Well sure, but I don't think he should be impeached until I hear that. People where I work - let me point out for the umpteenth time that these are people with graduate degrees - came in at lunch saying "How is it that Trump is still president this morning?  We heard he was impeached and we opened the champagne last night.  Then I get up this morning and he's still there and like, no one seems to be doing anything about it." Maybe now they'll at least know what the word means. Though at least one still believed a week later it was because Trump had done some tricky illegal thing to stay in power anyway even though he was impeached.  And why isn't there a revolution about that? 

So now we have that on Roe v Wade.  There are numbers that say that some moderate majority of people want abortion to be legal until about this point, but not beyond. And other numbers that say a moderate majority doesn't want Roe overturned. If that seems contradictory to you, well, you're right.  A fair number of people have an extreme idea about Roe one way or the other.  They think if Roe is overturned it means that no abortions are going to be allowed anymore. Others believe that Roe allows all abortions, and that's why they want to be rid of it.  To say that this is mucking up the debate is putting it mildly. People don't like change. Sometimes they aren't dead set against change and will reluctantly go along, but they are suspicious. They aren't sure what the hell will happen if there is a change, so best that everyone just shut up and not talk about it.

Five Thirty Eight has numbers about who thinks what. Spoiler alert: most people want to allow some abortions but also want to set some limits. They try to slice it accurately, comparing polls and questions, but it's hard because frankly, a lot of us don't know what the hell we think.


Grim said...

"The Confucians and a few classical Greek philosophers thought worshiping the gods of those around you was a route to citizenship, camaraderie, and happiness."

Yes, Aristotle for example says that explicitly in Politics 3.9.

My sense of the numbers accords with the 538 post. There are small, loud factions on each side that want either all or no abortions banned. There are mostly people in the middle who want some or most abortions banned.

However, the polling still isn't very helpful, because what really matters is the reasoning that makes sense to you about which ones and why. You can't get to that with even the most sophisticated poll.

For example, the heartbeat bill has never made any sense to me at all, but there are lots of people who seem inclined to it. Whether the heart is beating yet isn't a good principle to base a decision on because it doesn't show that the process of life hasn't yet begun -- the process of life is why there is a heart coming to be which will soon be beating -- but it seems to be a persuasive one.

Thus, a lot of those people in the poll who will show up in the "some abortions" line don't agree with me at all, even though I'd answer the poll in the same way for the reasons I recently explained.

David Foster said...

"There is considerable advantage in believing what those around you believe, which we can all sense psychologically, but it likely has survival benefit as well, or it would not be so common"...true, but also true that believing what others believe can get you bankrupt (in investing) or killed (in warfare and in safety-critical fields)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, it's a fascinating balance in that some people in the tribe have to be able to question what the tribe is doing or the whole batch of us will get wiped out in the next flood. Yet if people don't believe a great deal in common, no one is going to share casseroles or fight for each other.