Conformity is one of those tricky things: we like to give it the side-eye, but we also like to practice it, often without even knowing we’re doing it. We enjoy the feeling of being “right” with everyone else. The trouble is, it’s really hard to think differently than the rest of a group—so the feeling of being “right” isn’t really a feeling of being right at all. It’s just a feeling of being the same.
There is a series of psychological experiments that speak to the question of conformity. Collectively, these are known as the Asch Paradigm, and the most oft-repeated result of these studies is that, given enough peer pressure, a large number of people will give obviously wrong answers to questions. For example, when asked a simple question like “which of these three lines is the same length as this fourth line?” people were much more likely to pick one that was obviously longer or shorter if a group of other people confidently chose the wrong line first. In other words, seeing other people give the wrong answer with confidence made them change their own answer—and even doubt their own judgment.
You can tell this as a story about how we succumb to the pressure of the group and espouse ideas that are wrong. But I think it is more interesting as a story about how we impose conformity on others—about how confident we are in our views, especially in groups, and how viciously we ostracize people who propose something different.
As usual, the debate about academic freedom spills over into public discussion. And, as usual, it loses nuance. On one side, arguments in favor of trigger warnings and safe spaces, in the service of giving voice and power the traditionally voiceless and powerless. On the other side, arguments against coddling and censoring, with the goal of protecting free academic speech.
I’ve struggledbefore with understanding the deeper currents in this debate. I don’t claim to have finished. I hope, like so many students and academics of late, I will continue to wrestle with this and continue to grow. And I hope equally that wrestling will be productive. There is a temptation, by some, to treat every exploration as representative, to pretend that some students forcing the cancellation of a speaker or asking for the punishment of their fellows represents a demand for coddling. I don’t agree—I think it shows people wrestling with where to redraw the lines of discourse.
Because those lines are being redrawn, and I think that’s what the whole argument is about. I am beginning to think, at the base of it, this is an argument about silence.
For those of us with the drive to explore, limits are fascinating and inexorably attractive things. For us, limits are always questions. Which limits are hard limits? Which are soft limits? Can you, through intentional flirtation with the boundary, turn the one into the other? Can you see and do things no one else realizes are possible?
Our societal experience of limits is similar. Yet, I think the drive of the explorer is not the only experience we have. Continue reading →
When Don Quixote tilted madly at his windmills, imagining them to be giants, he did so in defiance of reason and evidence. He did so without any sane expectation that he could be correct, yet also with deep nobility and desire to see the world beyond the trappings of society. He rejected one frame of reference, and replaced it wholly with another that transformed his vision. He wasn’t correct in any sense of the word—but he was audacious, and, in Cervantes’ imagining, something more than mad.
There are people out there who believe monumentally foolish things. They believe them in defiance of reason, decorum, and evidence. They tie their identities to those beliefs and go out of their way to both evangelize and condemn all who believe otherwise. Yet, too, their freedom to believe foolishly is a fundamental part of our societal freedom. Without it, we would never be free to examine or embrace the absurd; to critique and recompose our perspectives; or to imagine new things that fly far and freely beyond our current knowledge. Continue reading →
Sometimes, in the course of a debate or discussion, a secondhand statement comes under consideration. The actors in the debate must then evaluate how relevant that statement is to the their discussion. This happens in media during interviews, in class discussions, on the internet, with friends and family, and beyond. Wherever it happens, you are as likely as not to hear a particular phrase—“no reason to lie.”
“Look, he has no reason to lie.”
“Why would he lie?”
“She doesn’t get anything out of lying about this—she has no reason to.”
However it arises, the implication of the argument that someone “has no reason to lie” is that having no reason to lie is, itself, evidence for truth.
And our understanding of logic and evidence is so bad that we often accept that.
At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.
This one, though, is a little bit different. Usually I put the things I’ve read into categories only and leave it for you to decide which you’d like to look at. This time I’ve put them in an order that reflects things I want to say about the tragedy of this month, but better than I could, and all together more clearly. Continue reading →
There is a point in believing an idea where, regardless of where we began, we lose the habit of refining that idea. Instead of seeking to improve our positions, we begin to defend then. Instead of searching for the nuance, we begin to strip it away.
It isn’t every idea—but certain ideas seem to burrow into our politics, our religion, and our activism, and once they are firmly in place, we refuse to let them go. And we begin to vilify anyone who suggests otherwise. I cannot tell whether it is due to external elements, like deep social division, or internal elements, like an uncritical approach to one’s own beliefs. Perhaps it is both, or perhaps it is something else entirely. But I think it not coincidental that these are tribal ideas: they are ideas that mark our membership as much as they define our position.
At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you. Continue reading →
Certainty is a funny thing. You might think the idea of certainty naturally admits that things are subjective, that absolute proof is difficult, and that beliefs must be updated to reflect changing evidence. But that isn’t how we practice certainty—instead of signaling a spectrum of probable truth, it seems to have become an arbiter of validity.
When someone is certain, that should be a commentary on the evidence they have for a position. Somehow, though, certainty has been divorced from that spectrum of evidence. Instead of certainty being the extreme end, it has become the correct end; the rest of the spectrum is collapsed and we are left with the binary of certainty and uncertainty. It that strange dichotomous world, anything uncertain isn’t worth considering—as though lack of absolutism frees us from any tether to the real world.
Some years ago, I got feedback from some of my colleagues that, on occasion, they needed me to “grab hold of the wheel instead of constantly reinventing it on the fly.” It was brilliant, pithy, and I’ve never forgotten it. I also judiciously ignore it. But the spirit of that piece of feedback, and thing that sticks with me, is the tension between two ways of approaching the world.
No matter what I do, I find myself compelled to find ways to do it better. Seeking and finding those things is one of the most fulfilling things I do in life, professionally and personally both.
I also happen to think that an ideal of recursive improvement is a fundamental necessity. If we don’t make seeking improvement a habit, we get pulled in the opposite direction and reject it even when it is sorely needed.