I think my faith is incoherent

I have been a Christian for a looong ass time.  Doubt has always been a feature of my faith.  I remember being a kid and feeling embarrassed, scared to say anything, and so my doubts lurked in shadows.  As I matured, it became clear that my doubt was legitimate and not uncommon.  My doubts are rooted in very objective weaknesses in the faith, and plenty of other believers wrestle with them too.  Faith is a thing that exists in the presence of doubt.  Faith is that property of mind or spirit that allows fidelity to an idea in spite of compulsion to believe otherwise, either imposed by an external force or exposed by the doubt within us.  If you read that sentence carefully, you should ask yourself, is faith a good thing?

Dear reader, I have no fucking clue.

Why do we believe in the first place?

I’ll speak to the Christian faith–the one I’m most acquainted with–but I’m sure the criticisms can be parlayed toward other faiths.  Most people of faith are children of people of faith.  So, it emerges out of culture and context.  There are certainly converts.  I can only comment anecdotally, but it really seems like faith is inspired by need: emotional or practical.  People turn to faith in the presence of tragedy, or they require it as a way of interacting with the world.  Imagine you want to believe in the idea of the good, that is, a transcendental value of which we should be advocates.  For example, all men are equal.  How do you sell that?  You might, say, hey, isn’t a world where we treat all men equal better than any alternative?  That would be practical, but not convincing in all circumstances.  But how history sold it was a little more epic.  The idea was we all descend from the same human pair, and that we are relationally part of a brotherhood/sisterhood, and God loves us equally.  That’s way more compelling.

Believing in moral values arguably gets you to a god, but it doesn’t get you to any given god.  If you ask a Christian why anyone should believe in their God, they might cite any number of BS reasons, but there is one semi-compelling reason.

The resurrection.

Ok, why is this compelling.  Well–it’s not.  It’s semi-compelling.

Imagine you’re an archaeologist, and you stumble upon some writings about some dude that got crucified, but then rose again.  After some study and research, you conclude the following:

  1. The author thought he was writing non-fiction, i.e. he believed what he wrote.
  2. The author believed what he wrote so much, that based on external sources, he probably died for it.
  3. That author is one of a dozen.

Look, the resurrection is weird.  It appears that a number of people experienced something that made them think their executed teacher became alive again.  A number of them believed it so much that they endured executions.  On the other hand, these understandings are based on events that occurred over 2000 years ago, so maybe we’ve lost something.  Is the resurrection compelling?

I dunno.  I think not, because most people that study the bible or the resurrection are not converted.  I am unaware of any clean explanation for why a bunch of people would have become advocates for a resurrected dude without any clear gain, but it was so long ago, maybe we just lost that knowledge.

What makes faith incoherent?

Let’s start with the text.  Almost every faith leverages some text as a building block.  Christians have The Bible.  Now, the Bible is a meaty text, filled with interesting, even thrilling stories on one hand and rote, lifeless diction on the other that might make you want to crucify yourself.  Overall, in spite of some ugly asides, the big picture themes are quite beautiful and inspiring, hence the faith’s success.

When a faith subscribes to a text, the expectation is that the text is useful.  For most Protestant Christians, the Bible is paramount.  It’s called inerrant or infallible.  Those that call it that will say that the Bible would have no power without it being consummately trustworthy.

Christianity has no greater weakness than the claim that its text is without fault.

Think for a second.  What could that possibly mean, that a text has no error.  Language is intrinsically subjective and in flux.  To say that a text is without fault probably means that there is an approach to the text that would result in meaning that we could count on.  What approach would that be?

A common approach–although unanimously rejected by academics–is that meaning out of a scripture is whatever is interpreted by a reader.  Obviously, this cannot be true, because readers come to contradictory conclusions.  Some Bible readers conclude that men and women are equal in gifts and talent and leadership.  Others claim that men must be more authoritarian.  Some understood slavery to be morally permitted, whereas others declared it anathema.  Clearly, this approach is broken.

A more compelling rationale is that the text means whatever it meant to the original hearers.  That is, the Bible was a thing crafted for us in the present, but not to us.  It was written to a people group in the past.

That sounds great.  It also solves the problem of parts of the text being copied, reproduced, and translated–clearly we ought to go back to the original texts insofar as we are able.  What’s wrong with this?

Well, other than having no clear rationale why this approach is the right one, who are the original hearers?  It’s really not obvious.  Some of these texts evolved in an oral tradition, or cemented over time in script.  Which original hearer are we talking about?  The average hearer?  The first hearer?  Is it the meaning we think they would have obtained without bias, or the meaning history points to them obtaining based on the context they lived in?  Who the hell knows?

I’ve been doing this Christian thing for 30+ years, and I have no idea what scripture being reliable means.  I promise you–it’s unlikely anyone does.  We don’t believe it because it makes sense.  We believe it because we have to.  What’s a faith without a text you can count on?  It could be art, but it couldn’t be truth.

Maybe that’s a false dichotomy.  The Bible is really just a bunch of documents compiled in history.  Were we to stumble upon them as archaeologists, we would imagine there would be some truths to be gleaned, but figuring that out would be hard work and probabilistic at best.  I think all of Christendom would be afraid of a faith that is so fragile.  I know I am.

But how many times has the text led us astray?  We thought the earth was the center of the universe.  We thought divorce was evil.  We are still struggling with alternative lifestyles.

Today is the day after Donald Trump got elected for President.

Christendom is largely to blame.  It is very unclear how my peers could conclude that Donald Trump was its best representative.  I very much doubt anyone sees a resemblance between Jesus Christ and Donald Tump.  And yet, here we are.  My people elected him.  It’s embarrassing.

It makes me not want to be their peers.  It affirms all the doubts that are so compelling.  But what’s the alternative?  Believe in another god(s) with another set of weakness, or believe in no god and have no rationale for advocacy of any kind.  I know, reader, that sounds absurd, but look: it’s not that people that don’t believe in god can’t be moral.  It’s that what moral means without a god is very hard to say.  It’s feels arbitrary.  It’s the difference between:

  1. Gay men are valuable because God created them and gave them significance
  2. Gay men are valuable because I met a gay dude and he was super, and a world in which they have equal dignity would be a nicer world to me

Without a god, it feels so subjective.

So, I dunno.  At the end of the day, the world feels absurd.  But to interpret it that way means surrendering to despair.  But there is also a despair in having hope that is crushed by thoughts without rigor.

And that is all I see among my Christian peers: thoughts without rigor.  We were supposed to be heroes.

Being a Woman is Like Living with a Minor Disability

Before you unleash on me, give me a chance.

Consider a woman living in Saudi Arabia.  She is unable to leave the house without accompaniment.  She cannot drive a car.  She can’t swim.  These inabilities aren’t too far removed from those of a person living with a disability.  From a modern, western perspective, we hopefully respond with some disgust because we acknowledge that women should not be subordinated socially or culturally, and hopefully we would say the same of a person living with a disability.  Living in the west, the life of a woman is way more liberated, but we’d be fools to deny the very real social circumstances that make life as a woman more challenging on balance.  There is the wage gap, there is misogyny, there is domestic violence, etc.  One might argue that being a woman or being of color affords advantages also.  There is something grand in womanhood, and being black or Asian can connect you to a rich cultural and historical tradition.  Race and gender are avenues toward specific communities of solidarity and shared experience.  To that, I retort that being physically or mentally disabled is not so different.  The disabled community also has a rich history and they share a very special kind of human experience.  There is a grandness in being a woman or being black–there is a grandness in being a white male for that matter–but there is also a grandness in being part of the community of humans living with disabilities.

The disability model is helpful for our thinking about how we cope with disadvantage, whether that means a physical or mental handicap or disadvantages that arise out of race, gender, economic class, etc.  Disability only makes sense in comparison.  In a world of one-armed men, the absence of an arm is not a disability.  It’s only a disability in a world of mostly two-armed men.  So, having a disability means having a disadvantage with respect to another class, usually the empowered mainstream class.  In the west, we usually imagine this as the archetypical white middle/upper class male.  The disadvantage could directly arise out of the nature of the disability, e.g the absence of fingers preventing me from tying a shoelace, or it might arise out of social reaction.  For example, occasionally a baby will be born with a 6th digit on his/her foot or hand.  If the digit is fully functioning, one might consider that an advantage, but because of social stigma, it’s usually removed soon after birth.  It seems to me that being an other in terms of race, gender, or class shares similar properties of disadvantage.  In the US, race, gender, and class otherness with respect to the white middle/upper class male correlate with physiological differences and significant social stigmas.  In those respects, being an other is like living with a disability.

Is that depressing or discouraging?  It shouldn’t be.  Do you know many disabled people?  I know some, and they inspire me.  I have a friend who became a quadruple amputee just a few years ago after recovering from sepsis.  With the use of prosthetics and some reconstructive surgery, he’s found a new normal that isn’t far removed from his old normal.  In spite of being described as “catastrophically disabled” by his insurance, he continues to work the same job, play with his kids, run around the neighborhood, and he just went skiing in Colorado.  The truth is that all of us have weaknesses, and why not construe those as kinds of disabilities?  In being disadvantaged in any sense, there is virtue in accepting the reality of the disadvantage–whether that’s inherent or cultural–and finding ways to thrive in spite of or because of those disadvantages.  To whatever degree the disadvantage is cultural, we ought to also fight against those imposed biases.

There is a trade-off for weakness, and that trade-off is an opportunity for dignity.  By dignity, I refer to a certain virtue in a individual that thrives in spite of disadvantaged circumstances and inspires his or her spectators.  The greater our disadvantages, the greater our opportunities for obtaining dignity.  In spite of our disabilities, whether that means having no limbs or being obese or being poor or being brown or being female, we are also empowered to accomplish great things.  I can only speak for myself, but I know that my personal disabilities don’t constitute an excuse for misusing or disusing my empowerments.

It is a mistake to imagine that everyone’s advantages and disadvantages even out.  Our lives are not equally easy, and we are not all equally capable.  If you are a wealthy white male, your human experience is very likely less obstructed than that of a poor black woman.  But, it is also a mistake to imagine that anyone lacks attributes that put him or her at some kind of disadvantage.  Fortunately, that weakness affords us an opportunity to be noble, to have dignity, and to inspire.

Hopefully, the title of this post is less incendiary.  If it still riles you, perhaps that says more about your diminished view of the disabled than it says about my diminished view of women.

Terrorists Murdered Cartoonists? Mind Blown!

So, what is one to say about all this?

Well, one of my mottos is: don’t attack the worst of your opposition.  Address the best.  What does that mean in this case?  As daunting as it sounds, it means putting yourself in the shoes of the antagonist and imagining them as rational as possible.

We know that in general, depicting sacred figures in insulting ways often constitutes blasphemy in whichever religion we are talking about.  In the western world, there aren’t a whole lot of avenues to fight back.  You can protest, boycott, but the more marginalized your community, the less effective you are.  As an extremist Muslim, one could imagine feeling somewhat powerless in this respect.  In the context of France, one might perceive a double standard, since there are laws against hate speech, and yet those never proved effective against Charlie Hebdo’s satire.

Islam isn’t the only religion that was lampooned by Charlie Hebdo, but it’s fair to say that Muslims have had the strongest negative reaction.  At least, that’s what I glean from the wiki article.  Gunning down the cartoonists, of course, is a pretty extreme reaction.  What is the distinction between the extreme element of Islam that would go to such lengths, and the elements of Islam and every other religion that would not?  The fundamentalist element makes a moral judgment call that there is some level of blasphemy that warrants death, and that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists met or surpassed it.  Everyone else agrees that no amount of blasphemy warrants death, or they are deterred by the practicalities.

At this point, stepping outside of the fundamentalist mindset, I’m a little daunted.  Moral judgment calls are difficult to argue with because, as I’ve mentioned before, moral models are varied.  Maybe it’s subjective, and just a matter of taste.  Maybe it arises out of some immaterial law, but whichever philosophy or religion best accounts for it is anyone’s guess.  To convince the Muslim fundamentalist that his judgment call is wrong would require expertise in Islam or trying to undermine Islam in general.  Trying to unconvince even a fairly rational believer would require a lot of involved discussion.

There are other less satisfying ways to argue with the fundamentalist.  I might argue that the terrorist act risks being ineffective or might even be counterproductive.  The killings may bring increased attention to the very incidences of blasphemy in question.  Other blasphemers might fill the void.  Violence may rouse anti-Islamic sentiment and do even more damage to the reputation of what is sacred.

These are also complex points of fact.  After all, I can’t guarantee that gunning down Charlie Hebdo’s staff might have some positive effect from the vantage point of the killers.  Not only does it put the future of the particular blaspheming publication in doubt, but it may chill other potential blasphemers as well.  I mean, I hadn’t been planning to blaspheme Mohammed, but if I did, I would approach it with more deliberation today that I would have applied a couple days ago.  We’ll have to see if that chilling effect really takes and for how long.  At the very least, it had the immediate effect of punishing the blasphemers, which perhaps the fundamentalist construes as reward enough.

This whole line of argument feels unsatisfying, because we don’t want a world in which satirists are safe because murdering them is impractical or counterproductive.  We want a world in which no one would make a judgment call that satire warrants death, however much it might be perceived as blasphemy.  In our hearts and minds, it might feel self-evident.  How can a cartoon warrant death of the cartoonist?  But the world does not have a uniform moral compass, and with a little imagination, it’s not hard to step inside worldview that yields a different kind of judgment call.

All this is to say that moral judgments often have this weird feature of feeling obvious, even though we have no agreement as to where these judgments are coming from.  When we encounter someone making an opposing judgment call, it is tempting to imagine them as irrational or evil.  Maybe they are, but there is probably a rational/semi-rational version of their position that would take a lot of work to undermine; probably more than you or I are capable of.

To Terminate or Not To Terminate: A Perpetual War of Ideas

This NPR article describes how individual stories are increasingly taking center stage in the abortion debate.  The war has always been about stories, and I believe personal stories have long played a role.  The overarching narrative told by each is powerful and distorted.  On the one, we have prolife advocates telling a story that sounds something like: an innocent life, bereft of voice, is threatened by malicious systems/organizations that take advantage of prospective mothers’ fears to commit murder.  On the other side, we have a story that sounds something like: a patriarchal society intent on defeating women’s freedoms and controlling them, imposes on their very bodies and sexual lives based on a mythological understanding of the soul.  Whew!  With diabolical narratives like that, we should be unsurprised if the debate is polarized.

It’s very hard to find rational debate somewhere in the conversation.  As is often the case, national conversations aren’t rational conversations; they are story wars.  After all, the intent is to persuade and galvanize a political will, not to come to some rational academic consensus.  Abortion is also an issue that is very personal, easily susceptible to the Too Close problem on one hand and the problem of ignorance on the other.  Anecdotal evidence is typically the worst kind, because for most issues of interest, you can find a good story to support whichever positions.  The article mentioned above highlights this and the subsequent unpredictability around how the war of story will really play out in the abortion conversation.

Abortion fascinates because the fundamental questions are really metaphysical.  One can imagine rational or scientific debate over whether contraceptives are abortifacients or not, but the question of if/when a fetus becomes part of the human moral community is much tougher and probably not empirical.  Perhaps stories are our only avenue in coming to resolution, terribly imperfect as they are.  I’m skeptical that stories are reliable avenues to truth, but they may be the only avenues to resolution, at the cost of a lot of demonizing and shaming.

I Like To Name My Meat Before I Eat It

I don’t name my meat as a rule, but why not occasionally embrace reality?  Naming my chicken Ralph or my burger Besse imparts a certain distinction and respect to it.  But perhaps you, dear reader, see a contradiction in naming the meat and still eating it.  How can one give significance to the animal and then participate in its consumption?

It impresses me how out-of-touch animal advocates and animal predators are with each other, at least the most vocal ones.  Either side behaves as if the moral quandary is the most obvious thing in the world.  Surely, you’ve heard an advocate say to a predator something like: How would you like to be cooped up in a cage and slaughtered?  I’ve never seen that convince anyone for a pretty obvious reason: the predator doesn’t believe the chicken is in the same moral category as himself.  On the other hand, there’s another absurdity I hear pretty often: Humans are omnivores, which means we’re designed to have meat as part of our diet.  Being an omnivore means you can eat plants or animals, not that you’re obligated to eat both.  Some claim that the meat protein is something their specific body needs, but I seriously doubt anyone stranded on a deserted island with an all-you-can-eat diverse vegetarian salad bar would be in much danger of starving.

We should all agree that animals exist in some kind of intermediate moral category between humans and the inanimate.  Why can’t we say they have parity with humans?  Because, almost no one advocates intervening with animals in the wild, which can be a brutal and dangerous place.  If a human being was about to get eaten by a tiger, we ought to intervene.  If a gazelle is about to get eaten by a tiger, at least most of the time, it is fitting to abandon the gazelle.  So, in abandoning animals in the wild, we must acknowledge some distinction in our moral sensibilities between animals and our human peers.

On the other hand, we can’t reduce animals to having no moral value, unless we want to live in a world where you can skin puppies alive.  There’s compelling evidence that animals experience pain, although it is impossible to understand their mental states.  Nevertheless, there is widespread popular agreement that being needlessly cruel to animals is a moral failure.

Unfortunately, putting animals in an amorphous intermediate moral category makes things difficult.  If we abandon them in the wild, then the level of cruelty imposed by the wild must be acceptable to us.  For the most part, the wild affords animals lots of space, so maybe that’s something we should demand in our farming practices.  But death in even factory farms may often be more humane than many kinds of death imposed by the wild.  As I’m sure you can imagine, there is plenty of room for different subjective responses.  If you love animals, you’re more apt to want better conditions in farming or no animal farming.  If you love steak, you more likely to want cheap meat under any circumstances.  And of course, there are plenty of subjective reactions in between the extremes.  The intermediate moral category is poorly defined, and I’m unaware of any avenues to remedy this.

So, I don’t see the problem getting resolved unless other considerations make the difference, like carbon footprint impact.  Maybe in this particular war of ideas, one will rise above, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The Taliban and Evil

It’s been an atrocious day in Pakistan.  A half-dozen gunmen attacked a school, and killed something like 140 people, more than half being children.  A good portion of the world has responded with outrage.  Read the comments section of that article.  With few exceptions, it’s hard to find any sympathy for the gunmen.  I mean, the murder of children; what’s more abominable than that?

I will say, it is in our nature, that when really hate something, we hate all of it.  Nuance is very difficult.  Take the proposition, the Taliban Gunmen were cowards to attack children.  What does cowardice mean, here?  I mean, choosing children as targets meant their victims would put up little resistance, so maybe cowardice means choosing the path of least resistance?  Except, of course, their choosing children as their targets ensured a violent response at great personal risk, and sure enough, all the gunmen were slaughtered themselves by the Pakistan military.  It makes more sense that they picked children because they were high value targets that ensured their own demise, not because they were easy targets that posed no threat.

If I step back, it’s much easier to describe their actions as misapplied courage than brazen cowardice.  How do you embark on any kind of suicide mission without courage?  But, to use any kind of positive adjective to describe them almost certainly incurs the wrath of those of us that hate them.  I’m sure even you, dear wise reader, are unsettled by my suggestion that courage could be applied to these guys.  This came up in the aftermath of 9/11 when Bill Maher and a few others made similar remarks.

Whether or not the Taliban gunmen have too much fear, I’m sure we almost all agree that their means and ends are evil.  But, we don’t all agree about what we mean by evil.  I hear a lot of people say that morality is subjective, that it’s in the eye of the beholder.  For that community, calling the Taliban evil is a pretty weak statement.  At best, it means they are very distasteful, or they act in very unpopular ways.  One might still want to resist them or punish them, because their tastes are in conflict with ours, but there’s no moral high ground.  The victor in this conflict should just be whoever has the power to win.

If morality is not subjective, then there is some immaterial something that condemns the actions of these gunmen, and maybe our sense of revulsion arises out of our knowledge of this immaterial something.  But, we don’t really agree what the something is, whether it’s God or some impersonal law.  So, that’s a little uncomfortable.  To make myself more uncomfortable, I might put myself in the mind of a Taliban gunmen and ask myself why I would attack children.  I must be furious.  I must feel victimized.  Perhaps I’ve lost my own family members in the conflict.  Perhaps I perceive my enemy as no nobler than myself.

I’m quite confident that the Taliban gunmen did not self-identify as evil.  I’m sure they self-identified as courageous soldiers.  In the end, they are simply poster children for the common human failing we’ve already learned, something we are all susceptible to if in typically less dramatic measure: that we often choose to be men and women of strong conviction at the cost of our better judgment.

Why Have Heroes If They Are So Fragile?

I love heroes and heroism.  Don’t you?  What is about them?  Maybe it’s the fantasy of being empowered, like a superhero, athlete, or philanthropist.  Those kinds of heroes are specially gifted for a certain kind of service; they have purpose, and maybe we all aspire for our powers to be meaningfully directed.  Maybe it’s just that the world is often bleak, and we want hope that forces are at work to redeem it, that the weak and the good have allies, that injustice does not have the final word.  Maybe it’s just a consequence of emotional attachment; that is, to love something is to exalt it.

Our habit of making heroes is another manifestation of faith.  As I said before, faith occupies that space between being convinced and being devoted.  In the case of heroism, more than consenting to someone’s gifts, talents, achievements, etc, we build a kind of devotion to their greatness.  It’s a risky kind of faith, because everyone is really quite flawed and apt to disappoint.  That isn’t to say every hero falls, but in exalting someone, the risk is there.  Even if we consent that everyone is flawed and broken, those we imagine as heroes, we also expect to rise above the worst of our natures, and we believe they will never do something unforgivable and we are apt to forgive them quite liberally.  If and when the unforgivable happens, we may defend them or enter a state of denial or minimize the crime until the dissonance is too great, and then our hearts break.

In a world where the good guys are too few, I grieve the loss of one more.  Bill Cosby always seemed like one of the good guys.  Sexual assault allegations came out years ago.  I don’t recall my reaction at the time–probably some incredulity tempered with the knowledge that most rape accusations are legit.  But the story disappeared, and I didn’t really think about, and Cosby retained his hero status.  Now that the pattern has been established and affirmed by so many, and though we may hold off on condemnation, surely we’ve defrocked him of his sainthood.  I know I’ve uncaped him.

Did we err?

It probably pays to be careful when we elevate someone toward heroism, though I can’t imagine what litmus test Bill Cosby would have failed in the 80s and 90s.  His image was fairly pristine at the time.  One alternative to accepting the risk is to just give up on making a hero of anyone.  I fear the cost of this is too high.  A world without heroes sounds like a dark and uninspiring place.  I’ve written before of the tension between good judgment, i.e. being measured and nuanced and fair, and being effectual, i.e. being courageous and motivated.  If we choose to never put faith in anyone, then we give up opportunities to be inspired.  Whether I like it or not, it is part of our human condition to be driven by stories and not by data, and a well-placed hero can make a huge psychological difference.

So, I say we continue to do what we’re doing but with as much care as possible.  Choose carefully who we love and exalt, be inspired by them, and endure the broken heart if the unforgivable happens.  And maybe some of us can aspire to embody the kind of hero that we are looking for.

Retractions and Trying to Learn a Lesson

Well, today provides us a beautiful example of confirmation bias at work.  Rolling Stone just published a retraction on their original piece detailing a gang rape on the UVA campus.  It’s a pretty chilling story and resulted in the entire Greek system being suspended while the university investigates.  The story poignantly portrays a freshman girl who unwittingly becomes the victim of a horrible premeditated crime by members of an established fraternity.  What with ‘rape culture‘ being such a hot topic lately, what could be more apropos?  Except, of course, Rolling Stone did not fact check the story as it would almost any other piece on any other topic, and now criticism of some anomalies and discrepancies have compelled a retraction.  Rolling Stone may have learned a lesson.  Is there a the lesson to be learned for the rest of us?

I don’t know.

If you encountered this story back when it made rounds, chose to make a judgment on it, and believed it, then you probably make the best judgment you could.  In spite of the insistent mythology of false rape, it barely ever happens.  By ‘barely ever happens,’ we’re looking false accusations in 2-8% of all rape accusations, so it’s not negligible but it’s pretty rare.  If you hear of a rape allegation, put your money on it.  We live in a world where being an accuser is as likely to get you vilified as being the accused, so false accusations are fairly strongly disincentivized.  There were problem elements of this particular story that a sharp mind might have detected, but those are judgments that probably require expertise.

What else could we non-experts have done?  We could have encountered the story and refused to make a judgment about it, or we could have judged weakly.  By that, I mean we could have allowed for our being wrong.  I could have read the story and told myself, I’ll see how this plays out, or I could have said, Sounds compelling.  I’d give it 20-1 odds.

But as I’ve discussed before, there is a cost in trying to have good judgment, and that is, you’re less likely to be effectual.  In this particular story, the alleged rape occurred in 2012.  The story broke in October 2014.  If not for the retraction–and maybe in spite of it–the university investigation would probably take months.  The story will maybe have some closure sometime next year.  Who has that kind of attention span?  People are most galvanized when stories break, not when they gradually wrap up a year or two later, so if you want change to happen, it needs to be proximate to the attention.

Even allowing for doubt really weakens our motivation.  I can’t imagine many protesters the day after the Darren Wilson verdict had a nuanced position the day before the verdict.  I’m sure they thought, Darren Wilson should be punished, not Eh, within existing case law, there’s maybe a reasonable argument to suggest he shouldn’t be indicted in spite of that being a miscarriage of justice.  I rarely hear climate change activists account for the relatively small uncertainty, although it is one area where the uncertainty is fairly quantifiable.  To make change happen, you’ve got to tell people, This is a HUGE problem, not There’s a 95% chance this a HUGE problem.

Our natures are this way, but maybe it’s possible to train ourselves in some middle path.  Maybe we can aspire to become men and women of measured judgment and courage.  I’d like to hope so, but I’m confident I’m not there yet.

The Too Close Problem

The Too Close problem is just another way of thinking about the Non-expert problem.  One can also think of it as the opposite of the self-explanatory problem of ignorance.

You know that ad hominem attack where person A derides person B for being too disengaged from an issue.  Imagine a woman telling a man that he has no standing to talk about abortion because he’s a man.  Or a black man telling a white women she has no standing to talk about whether racism is still a problem in America.  These may or may not be legitimate charges–probably depends on the specifics–but that’s not my point.  My point is that the opposite is also a problem.  As we saw with the non-expert problem, being too engaged is also a problem.  If your identity is wrapped up in an outcome or perspective, then regardless of how smart you are, you are likely to distort your view through that lens.

Consider any criminal case.  If being close to an issue alone made you qualified, then the best people to serve on the jury would often be the accused and the victim themselves.  Instead, aside from the fact that it’s unlikely they’d come to consensus on guilt, we understand that given how deeply invested these individuals are in the outcomes, they’re the last individuals we’d want on a jury.  We’d also want to avoid including family members or friends of the accused or victim not just in spite of but because of their intimate knowledge of the characters involved.  In this case, that intimacy means they have an implicit stake in the outcome which undermines their ability to make good judgments.  Instead, we find a group of a dozen normal, reasonable individuals completely disconnected from the events and characters in question, because we realize the best people to make judgments are those that are studying the issue with a certain level of dispassion and distance.

It’s not clear to me that combating these less than ideal belief-formation impulses is worth trying.  Being human means we prize anecdotes and we resonate with personal experiences.  Hopefully, with a little awareness of these pathologies, we can remember that at the end of the day, many elements of our human condition stand in the way of our being wise.

The Non-Expert Problem

In general, it seems like when experts agree, so does everyone else.  We pretty much all agree that the earth is spherical and revolves around the sun.  We agree that Columbus discovered the New World in 1492.  We believe smoking contributes to cancer.

But, sometimes there is a disconnect.  Like, when it comes to evolution, climate change, vaccine safety, GMO safety, etc.  The list of discrepancies is enumerable, so that’s encouraging, but there it is, a stubborn resistance even when the data is clear to those qualified to understand it.  Pretty much every conspiracy theory can fall into this same category of disagreement between some community of believers and expert consensus.  What are the mechanics behind these incidences?

Human beings suffer from a problem I call the non-expert problem. In general, we defer to expertise when we’re not particularly invested in the outcomes. Much of science is not obvious, but there’s relatively little concern about scientific inquiry into optics or high energy physics or studies of invertebrates. Most people have a “yeah, sure, whatever, that’s interesting” attitude. And within bodies of experts, there are lots of debates going on constantly that no one cares about.

Trusting experts is a choice. It’s always possible to find reasons not to believe an expert. Climate change is fascinating to me mostly because of the huge degree of disconnect between experts and non-experts. There are almost no climate change expert skeptics. Childhood vaccination is another point of contention, also fascinating because the lines are not drawn politically or religiously.  It’s an amorphous set of identities that lends itself to an anti-vax position.

One might hope that with enough time, enough exposure to the facts, with enough science education, we could diminish ignorance and promote the expert consensus.  However, that’s not necessarily true.  A couple of studies suggest that the non-expert problem actually becomes worse the smarter you are.

First, David Dunning shows us that if you are a non-expert, you don’t realize how non-expert you are.  He gave subjects a series of tests, and then asked them to predict their performance.  Turns out, everyone thinks they are above average.  The worst performers rate themselves only slightly poorer than the best performers, but always above average.  So, an absence of expertise prevents you from realizing how incompetent and unqualified you are.

Secondly, Dan Kahan and colleagues show us that the smarter you are, the more likely you are to mislead yourself if you have some investment in an outcome.  First, he presents to test subjects some tricky looking data about a skin cream.  At a glance, the skin cream numbers might look effective, but if you do the math, it’s actually ineffective.  So, most test subjects misunderstand the data, but those identified having math proficiency were much more likely to get it right.  Then, he presents to test subjects the same data but makes it politically charged, i.e. frames it around gun control or climate change.  Now, it turns out that math acuity no longer predicts whether you can interpret the data.  Turns out, the better you were at math, the more likely you were to misinterpret the data if it didn’t accord with your ideology.

So, there you go.  Not only are we non-experts unable to diagnose our non-expertness, being smart doesn’t necessarily help.  If the topic is charged and you have an investment in the topic, you will likely marshal your intellectual talent to bolster your intuition instead of faithfully interpreting the data.

What then?  Is there an alternative?  Maybe.  It would mean approaching hot topics with dispassion, deferring to experts in spite of strong visceral opposition, choosing to act because it’s intellectually right; not emotionally compelling.  At the end of the day, maybe we have to choose between being ineffectual men and women of good judgment, or being men and women of strong and unreliable conviction.

Jeez.  That’s depressing.