The saying goes: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather than a plea to protect infants, the idiom is understood to mean: “don’t reject the essential along with the inessential”. Here’s an extreme example: The Nazis conducted unspeakably horrid, inhumane medical experiments on their prisoners. Most of what they did simply amounted to torture, and produced no data. But what if, among the useless findings, they had actually discovered something useful? Do we reject the discovery, or keep it?
Rarely does life hand us such dramatic ethical problems, but if you engage in a bit of honest introspection it’s not hard to see that we are faced with questions of this flavor quite often. Personally, one of my most pernicious habits is ignoring an argument because of its source. I don’t watch FOX because it’s all conservative flapdoodle; I don’t watch MSNBC because it’s all communist propaganda; I don’t read books from pseudoscientists because they’re all charlatans; I don’t trust results from scientific fields that aren’t physics because, well, they’re not physics—the list goes on.
So in the spirit of openness, I decided to give a few of these things the old college try. Here’s a brief account of how it went.
On Heuristics and Pseudoscience
Pseudoscience is as varied as regular science. You have your quantum shamans, your New Age gurus, your collective consciousness folks, and my favorite—the psychonauts. Terrence McKenna, Sasha Shulgin (perhaps this one isn’t fair), Tim Leary, all the big names. Since McKenna’s been making a posthumous comeback on YouTube, let’s focus on him.
There are hours upon hours of audio tapes that feature McKenna lecturing to admiring crowds—and it’s not hard to see what they were admiring. McKenna was unnervingly witty, articulate, perceptive, and iconoclastic in all the right ways. He had interesting, new things to say about the cultural movements of his time, included a scathing criticism of math education and (somewhat ironically) pseudo-science (below). Why somewhat ironically? Because McKenna also happened to believe that the psilocybin mushroom “is the megaphone used by an alien, intergalactic Other to communicate with mankind”.
Views like this are enough to permanently scare off any reasonable person. But why? Ideally, McKenna’s opinions should be individually judged on their merit. As is the case for most prolific speakers/intellectuals, some of his opinions turned out to be crap (e.g psilocybic megaphones), while others turned out to be brilliant (or brilliantly put, at least). Here’s the above mentioned example of non-crappy Terrence McKenna (start at 2:48:30):
Moreover, much of the psychonaut culture espouses classically humanist ideals, like love for others and universal kindness—whatever that may mean. So even if these people believe that DMT or LSD puts them into contact with aliens, who cares as long as their message is one of peace and human liberty? In fact, just from my own interactions, there tends to be a rather large overlap between the humanist and the psychonaut communities. Interpret that as you will.
Another reason I’m happy I discovered McKenna is because he had the courage to ask interesting questions about science/math which other laypeople naturally shy away from. Don’t get me wrong, nearly all his questions belie a deep and basic ignorance, but they still make the rest of us consider things we otherwise would have overlooked. For example, he asked (paraphrasing) “why is it that, when flipping a coin, the coin doesn’t always land on its edge, if the probability is truly 50-50?”
And yet, I suspect if someone combed through all of McKenna’s videos and books they would find that most of what he had to say was gibberish. This, I think, is the reason why we keep a keen eye out for the source of their information—it’s a reliable heuristic. In other words, it’s a rule-of-thumb filter for keeping “junk” information out of your life. Google, in fact, already knows this and personalizes your search results based on your previous searches—effectively keeping you in a warm cocoon of confirmation bias. I’m not commenting on whether this heuristic is a good thing or a bad thing, but with our Google-boosted filtration habits, it’s a wonder why we wonder about the partisan divide.
On Perspective Taking and Politics Divides
Speaking of politics, it may come as no surprise to my billions of Applied Sentience readers that—if you really needed to stick a label on me—I’d tolerate being called a libertarian. Being the son of two Jewish refugees from the rabidly anti-capitalist, anti-Semitic Soviet Union, I never really had a chance at being anything else. What’s worse is that I pretty much systematically ignore anybody left of Bill Clinton—unless they’re really far-left (and stupid), in which case I use them to explain why I think all left-leaners are idiots (which of course isn’t true). But all this is going on at an almost automatic, subconscious level.
Determined to overcome my birth-bestowed biases, I sat down to read Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions, which Steven Pinker says contains “the best theory given to date” regarding the nature of political beliefs.
To give a brief synopsis, Sowell argues that there are essentially two main, opposing views of human nature underlying all political views. The constrained view generally holds that human nature is fixed and that people are self-interested. The unconstrained view maintains that human beings are essentially good, morally improvable, and that the main problems in human societies are institutional—that is to say: the way to make society better is to make its institutions better. Most crucially, the unconstrained don’t usually trust decentralized processes (like free markets).
I don’t want to understate the impact this book had on me, but I also don’t want to devolve into mush here. The truth is that Sowell (a known conservative) has set a great example for the rest of us. He was able to temporarily set aside his political views for the sake of dispassionate, objective evaluation. But that’s just the author. The book is like anabolic steroids for your perspective taking and empathy pathways. People who have non-libertarian political views repulse me way less than they used to. Now I can at least understand where they’re coming from, and what perspectives/implicit beliefs of theirs are pulling the strings of their political beliefs. And with this newfound superpower I hope to save a ton of babies, even if the bathwater is brackish and unpleasant.
Empathy and Arguing
No matter what your political affiliation, you’re probably interested in defending it. And if, like me, you participated in school debates, you probably know that the best way to win is to anticipate your opponent’s attacks. This is yet another reason for consciously side-stepping our biases—empathy makes for better arguing.
An example: despite this being a secular humanist blog, I pretty much never write about religion. This isn’t because I’m religious—it’s because I don’t really understand religious beliefs. Religion played a minor, perfunctory role in my life growing up. After taking a one-semester crash course on Western religions, my (non-Jewish) girlfriend knows more about Judaism than I do—and I’m bar-mitzvahed!
For that reason I feel slightly uncomfortable about debating things like, to use a popular example, the existence of the soul. And when I try to read what religious people have to say about the subject, I’m usually unable to read more than a few paragraphs. This truly sucks, since the majority of people on this planet are religious, and I don’t want to miss out on understanding something so fundamentally human.
What this post is saying (to both you and myself) is: don’t be so hard-headed. Despite what we’re naturally inclined to think, letting “junk” into our minds (assuming our minds are already developed) probably won’t pollute our critical faculties as much as we expect. And who knows, maybe we’ll find diamonds in the dung. I also mentioned reasons such as building empathy and perspective taking, strengthening one’s own resolve, and challenging the assumptions implicit in one’s belief systems. All things which I think most (if not all) Applied Sentience readers will agree are noble pursuits.
Regarding the coin-flipping question: it’s because an event’s probability is (at least in the standard treatment) defined as the “limit of its relative frequency in a large number of trials.”
In human-speak: if you were to flip a coin an arbitrarily large number of times and record the result (heads or tails) each time, the number of heads you get divided by the number of flips approaches–in a mathematically well-defined sense–one-half. So we say p = .5.