Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Open Mind

An open mind is kind of like a triangle, a concept everyone is familiar with but there's a pretty solid question as to whether it exists in nature.

I'm riddled with bias and prejudice myself, and one of those areas in which I, and you, are going to be prejudicial is how we differ on what 'having an open mind' means.

For example there's probably a road all people follow along to some extent: not jumping to conclusions, hearing someone out, allowing somebody to say their piece etc.

But eventually it seems possible to part ways on the definition, I head off to my campfire one I might share with you, or you may branch off to sit around a different fire.

For example, there are parties that feel having an open mind translates behaviorally to suspending critical thinking. To receive arguments with no argument. A lack of filters to assess the quality of information received. Even so, this is a treatment of information that is often asked of an audience rather than practiced by the speaker.

A'sail fully unfurled to catch the slightest bit of bullshit in the breeze.'

The campfire I sit around is one where having an open mind does not require the suspension of critical faculty. It means to observe the actual evidence and make judgement upon that and that alone.

Which sounds like what a judge might have to do in a court of law... except there have been plenty of case studies and rigorous experiments to demonstrate that Judges are often prejudice, even by their blood sugar levels and mood. Most people are incapable of practicing the above definition. Including myself and my knowledge of my emotional competency.

I doubt two people could easily share the same understanding of a closed mind - there's again some low hanging fruit easily gathered like 'disregarding testimony based on skin colour.' and so forth, but what about 'not-deferring to an expert authority.' or 'disregarding something because it is part of mainstream medicine?' these are the basis of fun arguments being had constantly now, where one person's open mind is another person's closed one.

Perhaps the open mind exists only as an ideal. I have a core belief that reality wins, the truth will out. This is tempered somewhat “The market can stay irrational a lot longer than you can stay solvent!” by Maynard Keynes, which goes broader than financial examples of fictions versus reality. Consider someone with access to nothing but Nazi propaganda in the lead up and duration of World War 2, the truth of the Third Reich's superiority took a while to play out, in which many people managed to die before it was resolutely defeated by the cold hard reality.

With that in mind let's talk strategy. Why even talk about open minds? Shouldn't there just be an acknowledgement of our own prejudice and biases, that being extant in ourselves probably will also describe other's modes of thinking just as well as our own and respect that. So is asking for an audience to keep an 'open mind' a kind of pathetic plea to simply surrender to your argument and let it into their map of the universe?

Rather, the open mind is a strategic ideal - a higher ground to stand on emotionally where we are not cornering ourselves for an onslaught from reality. Because that's the thing, Youtube is littered with videos that bear titles 'x DESTROYS insert out-group's ideology' and spoiler alert - nothing ever gets destroyed in these videos - somebody talks for a bit generally. But reality will destroy people just as it crushed National Socialism in Germany, British Occupation in India, the civilian population of ancient Pompeii, the Vikings ... and you can bet that when the writing was on the wall there were people in all those situations that couldn't be convinced by anyone that it was. 'Vesuvias is just letting off a bit of steam' someone would have said of the plume of smoke that morning.

Any ideology can be pressed and cornered against reality. An open mind might be considered a form of recognizing the lay of the land, or a kind of intellectual spacial awareness. In matters of strategy I tend to defer to an expert practitioner like Musashi Miyamoto who writes:

"Discerning the order in which the opponents attack, deal with those whom press forward first; keeping an eye on the whole picture... Intent on herding opponents into a line, when they seem to be doubling up, sweep in powerfully, not allowing a moments gap... if you get a group of practitioners together from time to time and learn how to corner them, it is possible to take on one opponent, or ten, or even twenty opponents, with peace of mind."

And now imagine being in a room, perhaps a school hall/gymnasium, and having Musashi attacking you, hearding you and I feel in that experience I would learn that I know nothing about the concept of even standing in a room safely. Putting a weapon in my hand I have no confidence of preventing me from discovering that I'd been cornered, disarmed and dominated and possibly walked into the last room of my life.

So by the metaphor an open mind is being able to perceive the walls of your reality, so you can pivot around the center of a room rather than be driven into a corner owing to a closed mind. To me, that's why you want an open mind. You don't want prejudices that you can trip over.

Given most people's poor statistical intuitions for example, most of us (and I can testify that I myself) get the Monty Hall problem incorrect. It takes an open mind to accept that one should always switch, and this can be demonstrated and proved mathematically - and yet I'm told to this day many people who have had the Monty Hall problem explained to them still refuse to accept that a participant should always switch.

My mind was open enough when first exposed to the Monty Hall problem to be persuaded I'd made an error, and later when passing the meme on at a campfire to someone with a fractionally less open mind (and probably someone worse at explaining it - being me) I actually ran a simulation for the person that made it quickly clear that you should always switch.

That person in this domain though, by being willing to run a simulation of the Monty Hall problem - had an open mind, by my definition. This was not Galileo's prosecutors refusing to look through a telescope lest their faith by corrupted by evidence.

So moving into the realm of pure opinion, how do I think the ideal of an open mind be achieved?

1. Think of Yourself as a Dingus.

This requires the opposite of mindfulness, but time travel. Jump back ten years and you tend to think of your former self as a bumbling idiot, your present self as some kind of intellectual bad ass. But time travel forward - a feat of imagination rather than imaginative memory and you should be able to prospect that in ten years time some improved version of you is going to regret some of the stupid decisions you are making.

It may also help to study a little history, and appreciate that some of the former smartest people in the world believed some real garbage or did some really stupid things - like Isaac Newton blowing all his money on a financial market bubble, Pythagoras' crazy religion he ran, and Socrates annoying so many people he got sentenced to death for it.

Less personal but still related is to get an appreciation of the half life of knowledge and maybe also that true knowledge is obtained via subtraction rather than addition - it's easier to determine what isn't true than what is, so if you develop an appetite for finding out what beliefs you hold are incorrect, you can better perceive reality faster than someone who is constantly trying to add new ideas to their map of the world.

2. Avoid the Ad-hominem

So I have this prejudice against Youtube's algorithms. Not just youtube's but algorithm's in general that try to push content toward me based on what I appear to like. This is very annoying to someone who has the aforementioned appetite for knowledge based on subtraction. If the algorithm was any good, it would learn that if I've just watched a key note presentation on some topic, then the video I next most want to see is one that refutes all the claims that have been made in the video I just watched.

Sadly no, and increasingly of late, this means that if I watch video's of a certain nature, the Youtube landing page quickly transforms into something that suggests I'm a male-rights-activist who has nothing better to do than hate on Islam. And it's because of a stack of correlations and polarization such that if you watch a psychologist or economist talk about psychology or economics, very often they've weighed in on identity politics.

The correlation is not what you might think though, the correlation is actually that white men aged 40+ still dominate most of the sciences and academic professions and economic think tanks and perhaps even literary journalism.

And here is where I feel it is important to avoid an ad-hominem informal fallacy. Case in point - Jordan Peterson. He's a fairly cranky old academic recently guilty of committing a slippery slope fallacy against a Canadian Bill to have gender identity and gender expression added to the Canadian Human Rights legislation.

Lest you already be committing the 'fallacy fallacy' his argument, that forcing people to acknowledge other people's preferred pronouns is an infringement on freedom of speech and that to not respect someone's identity expression through use of their preferred pronouns was morally equivalent to using racial slurs - actually holds. It just wasn't any part of the legal realities of the bill that passed. Much the same that if someone said that should Australia potentially legislate for Marriage Equality people could start marrying their siblings is not a valid reason to vote 'No' but that also doesn't mean incest is a good thing.

But here's the thing, Peterson succinctly, though uncharitably, describes the character of much of modern feminist writing:

"It's so comical watching the feminist postmodernists in particular rattle on about the absence of gender reality and act out the archetypal devouring mother at exactly the same time. For them the world is divided into predators and infants. And the predators are evil and need to be stopped and the infants need to be cared for. Well, that's what the mother does, but adults are not infants, and all you do is destroy them when you treat them that way."

To me if you were a feminist or even just a progressive thinker, that's probably the most insightful piece of feedback as to what gap there is between your ideology and reality - the adult-infant gap.

But a progressive business owner who is instructing their baristas to use gender neutral language when interacting with customers is not the kind of person who will sit and open mindedly read or listen to Jordan Peterson, even when Peterson is speaking within his domain of expertise based on thousands of hours of clinical practice.

Thus never realizing that adults aren't infants and most can cope with the 'trauma' of 'microaggressions', that catering to the needs of a customer base that is hypothetically likely to organize a boycott of your business by their own interest group is a powder-keg customer base you probably don't want to be dealing with, and that if your area has a high concentration of Queer customers it is likely to be gentrifying and their scene will be driven out by increased rents soon even if your business isn't.

This ad-hominem one is probably the biggest obstacle to a closed mind out there. I'm sure it applies to me, and there's some widely yawning gap in my ideology that I fail to perceive largely because I am repelled for some other reason by the very people who tend to articulate that gap in my understanding well. It's very hard for me to describe my own blind spot though, becuase I can't see it, I just follow my first bit of advice though and presume it to definitely be there.

I generally don't have time for ufologists like Dr. Steve Greer, whose documentary 'Sirius' opens with a voice-over that explains what a 'dead man's trigger' is and why Greer need's one. The equivalent of watching a documentary featuring me opening with, 'few people are in possession of a tiger repelling rock, but tohm is so hated by tigers that he carries one all the time. See, even now he is still alive having not been killed by tigers.' I wouldn't be inclined to listen to me if that was the introduction to me as a speaker, which brings me to my final piece of advice.

3. Try being Empirical

Which is to say, test things, test your beliefs, run thought experiments, attempt to practice what you are preaching and in the many cases where it's impractical to run an experiment to convince yourself, try to defer to people who have run the experiments.

There's a few caveats to this. Economics is a wretched science, it's political import means it is almost inevitably bastardized in it's findings. In fact it is far more informative to find economists like Mark Blyth or Yanis or Richard Thaler or finance people like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Peter Schiff, Robert Schiller ... criticizing economic theory than to ever defer to whoever writes the economics columns in the finance section of your newspaper. The economic status quo is unreliable at best.

To a lesser extent, I can also personally testify that Market Research is very often not empirical research. It faces the same conundrum as somebody employed by an addict to prevent their employer from entering an opium den.

That said, it's okay to defer generally to people who are peer reviewed and have generally invested much more time and energy into obtaining their knowledge than you are willing to. Though I generally don't respect academics, there is something to be said about the buffer their sheltered from practice lifestyle affords them in not being biased - it's why I feel an open mind can reject 'climate change skeptics' who are generally employed lobbyists, professional politicians and partisan newspaper columnists, and considering the 'vested interests' of climatologists trying to perpetuate their research funding is not the act of an open mind but a closed one - because the vested interests are so assymetrical, much like the facts are to the debate.

Perhaps there's a large and important caveat, a kind of ad-hominem but applied to fields of study, schools of thought. There's definitely a hierarchy of the sciences - the 'hard sciences' rank above the 'soft sciences' and even within these categories, physics reins over chemistry, chemistry over biology etc. in the soft sciences it gets more contentious, but as someone who holds an economics degree, imo psychology ranks far above economics, such that an economist trying to argue what a rational utility maximizing individual would do in a situation should shut the fuck up when a psychologist then describes what a person tends to do.

And having said that, even lowly, wretched economics I would probably rank above something like gender studies, for at least in economics you can find tenured professors of economics in universities that will criticize economics ability to describe reality, and economics at least is often tested (and disproved) in practice. Gender studies is just too young, too nebulous and basically not practiced out of tiny insular subcultures. Having said that, I've never studied it myself, nor even read a syllabus, so I don't really know what is going on there, but if an economist should defer to a psychologist over descriptions of human behavior, a gender studies major should definitely defer to a psychologist, anthropologist and biologist.

Most importantly, if you feel I'm singling out the recent phenomena of the popularity of Gender studies, it's because a distressed friend sitting on the pointy end of some closed minds described why so often progressives are not deferring to what psychology knows about people, and that's a form of perfect thinking - I'm paraphrasing but the rationale was 'psychology can be dismissed because it is part of colonialism, and therefore oppression.'

Perfect thinking is the best indicator of a closed mind: you have the perfect partner because whenever he turns abusive it's not him but the mental illness he struggles with. The rational is perfect but the reality you may get cornered against is potentially life-threatening. Doctors poo-poo alternative medicine because they are profit driven, therefore Western Medicine can't be trusted. It's perfect, but again the reality you are closed to is potentially life threatening. All knowledge generated by colonial powers is suspect as it is used to sustain oppression, is a perfect way to disregard virtually everything modern life is based upon, the only remedy I can suggest is watching the people's front of Judea debate what the Roman's have done for them again.

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