Textbook Examples

It’s never the theory that trips people. By now, anyone who’s spent a decent amount of time on the internet can explain confirmation bias, or Dunning-Kruger. Rather, it’s the application — not just what those things look like in the world but in ourselves.

It’s why we never take the lessons of speculative fiction. A sci-fi author will take a truth (humans define their reality socially) and write a novel where that happens in some obviously ridiculous way. Those who read it will have a unanimous thought: “Yes, we should all think for ourselves.”

(As Aldous Huxley noted, “The trouble with fiction… is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.”)

Reality is complicated, which is *why* we define it socially. It’s the brain’s way of incorporating multiple points of view. In a local environment, that strategy is information-maximizing. Once you can connect digitally to large numbers of people who think like you, it becomes a trap.

I suspect most people would be ready to accept that, or something like it. But if it’s true, it raises a much more interesting question: Why do folks stay there? After all, you and I don’t succumb to that kind of thinking. We’re sharp, open-minded people. Why can’t others get out?

The easy answer is that people are stupid, and that’s exactly what you hear all the time. People are dumb or shallow or closed-minded.

If you believe that, congratulations, you have fallen for the trap. The belief that people are stupid is precisely one of the insulating mechanisms. if people are stupid, then you don’t much have to listen to them or think about what they say. If one of them says something that sounds wrong, it probably is, because if people are stupid, the odds are always in your favor.

Human intelligence is actually fairly tightly clustered. There are some stupid people. But there are also some incredibly intelligent people. More to the point: none of that matters. Whether a speaker is stupid or not doesn’t tell you anything about the question. Stupid people can still be right. Smart people can still be wrong. Whatever question is being discussed still has to be evaluated on its merits. “People are stupid” is a kind of ad hominem.

The reason we jump to perceptions of intelligence is because our brain doesn’t like to think. Thinking is hard. It takes time. Odds are, unless we are experts, we probably don’t have enough information to evaluate the question. It’s much easier to use a proxy: Do I think this person is smart? Or is that other person smarter?

In real life, people use all kinds of proxies to avoid the two alternatives: doing the work or declining an opinion. They don’t just use perceptions of intelligence, they use perceptions of morality. They will tell you that a person is correct because they are good, which doesn’t follow. They will put the burden of convincing them onto the world. “No one has convinced me, so it must not be true.” They confuse parts with wholes, as if true beliefs were crystalline and every part was the same as every other part.

But here’s the important thing: In the real world, versus the textbook example, these shortcuts of thinking are woven amid solid arguments, well-established facts, and the very best of intentions. They are like the seeds in a tangle of cotton. There may be far more cotton than seed, but it is very difficult to do anything useful with it until the seeds are gone.

Anne Zahalka – The Mathematician