Back when I was working at Mindstorm, a coworker of mine was talking to another coworker in earshot and was saying some things that are pretty blatantly untrue. Not untrue in the sense of “I have a different opinion” or “you’re skewing the facts” but things that are immediately and verifiably untrue. In this case, he was saying that the IRS is actually a corporation that collects money from the government like a debt collection agency as opposed to being the government entity that it is. It was all I could do not to insert myself into the conversation, but it was a good thing that I didn’t since people don’t like to be corrected and since I had just started it would have gotten us off on a bad footing. We became friends, of sorts, and he actually turned out to be a really smart guy. Just misinformed.

Right now I’m at The Copper Cafe, my favorite coffee shop in Redstone. Apparently, behind me is some sort of meeting of a group of Christian-Marxist-Greens. I’m not kidding. This was obviously a very intelligent group of people that talked about weighty things. Politics aside, it’s a group that I have typically become friends with. But as intelligent as their ideas were and their ability to consider different points of view and so on, they were operating off some pretty blatant misconceptions. Again, not wrong in the sense that I disagreed with what they were saying but rather that what they were saying was objectively wrong no matter what your ideology.

To pick one example, there was a consensus that the United States was one of the worst offenders in the world when it came to human reproduction. We are, as one of them put it, “a nation of breeders”. Now, we do tend to reproduce at higher levels than a lot of western countries, but last I checked we hovered pretty close to replacement rate and not above it. So we may be “part of the problem” if you believe that the Earth’s population should be 3 or 2 or 1 billion, but

Now, my coworkers was actually a pretty smart guy and we would become pretty decent friends. I do not hesitate nearly as much when it comes to correcting people that know me. Among other things, they’re more likely to take me seriously since they know that I am not the sort of guy that makes up things in order to win an argument. Of course, even there I can hedge somewhat. Instead of making a statement declaratively, I will say something like “My understanding is…” and, depending on the individual, we will sometimes “compromise” on something I know to be untrue but at least closer to the truth than their initial statement. I am not one to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Of course, another factor in all of this is that you can get derailed on facts that are not central to the argument. For a whole lot of people, facts are something to support the thesis rather than a thesis being the result of a careful evaluation of all the facts. A fact that doesn’t fit is then often replaced with a new (sometimes weaker) fact that does fit. To take the above example, even if I could indeed demonstrate that American breeding patters are not an outlier on the aggressive side, her point would have remained intact. Environmental damage is being done. The United States is a heavy contributor in said environmental damage (as are developing countries, which all of the CMG’s noted). These are arguments that I am not prepared to contest as environmental issues are not generally a subject of interest.

One of the more difficult things I have had to learn over the last several years is to simply let people be wrong. Both on the Internet and off of it. I tend to choose my battles very cautiously. This is such a far cry from who I used to be it is pretty ridiculous. I was an opinion columnist in college who lectured everyone on The World According To William Truman. Dad used to have to shush me when I was in high school to prevent me from spouting off on some subject of another. I’m really not sure what to attribute this personality shift. It’s partially a product of having been wrong about some things I used to be so sure about. Some of it just calming down with age.

A huge factor is the Internet itself. Back when I was so sure of myself, I was never confronted with the best arguments before or against something. Now, with enough investigation, just about every QED I ever had is challenged by somebody that actually makes a pretty good point. Either they consider an angle that I hadn’t or, just as often, I discover that they are simply operating under different assumptions than I am. From those assumptions come facts that support the assumption and reasons that the facts that don’t support that assumption are either irrelevant or something that doesn’t take the proper things into account.


Category: Coffeehouse

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6 Responses to Facts Are Not As Stubborn As People

  1. PeterW says:

    I think that it’s a general tendency of nerds to believe that argument and reasoning are about truth-seeking rather than about winning arguments and looking good, because we’re good at the former and bad at the latter. The internet disabused me of that notion, simply by allowing me to participate in as many arguments as I could handle and seeing how they played out. (And, I admit, there was a side of me that was disappointed that there are simply so many wrong people in the world that even someone as brilliant as me could never have the time to convince the world.) What I took away is that it’s simply a waste of time to try to argue with people unless you either already have a relationship with them or occupy a high-status position.

    I think that if you had the time and money to sink into persuading people, it would behoove you to spend effort playing in the status space rather than in the argument space (change culture so that people holding your belief are higher status, as has been done for smoking), and developing technology to favor your position (women started working en masse when contraception and fertility treatments became available, not sooner and not later.) Simply adding your weight to heavily contested tugs-of-war won’t do much.

    A talk on how reasoning is about winning arguments: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality.haidt.html

  2. Sheila Tone says:

    “Apparently, behind me is some sort of meeting of a group of Christian-Marxist-Greens. I’m not kidding. ”

    This describes many nuns I have known.

    The beliefs go easily together. People probably think they don’t because the Russian Communists were anti-Christian. But the idea of collectivism is very compatible with Christianity, as is the asceticism advocated by green types.

  3. SFG says:

    Yeah. I always thought the straight Christian position was socially conservative and economically liberal–sure Jesus wouldn’t have been for homosexuality and abortion and said ‘love, honor and obey’, but c’mon, he threw the moneychangers out of the temple, went around curing poor sick people, and said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven. His followers shared everything–he really was a communist!

  4. trumwill says:

    It’s not so much the fact that they were liberal that I found surprising, but the fact that they identified specifically with Marx and Communism rather than a more vague socialism.

  5. SFG says:

    That’s a good point. Communism was specifically atheistic.

    It’s too bad Christian socialism died out, IMHO; I wonder if a version that focused on Christianity to compel good behavior might have been adapted to America. There were guys like William Jennings Bryan running around; what happened to them? I have to say, from the general-human-welfare point of view, I’d rather have the kids believing the earth is 6000 years old and all have healthcare.

  6. trumwill says:

    In WJ Bryan’s day, the wedge social issues of today were more-or-less settled. Bryan and his like didn’t have to make a choice between abortion-on-demand or gay marriage and his view of an aggressive role of government.

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