Sunday, January 6, 2013

When "well that's what I believe" signals intellectual shutdown

I recently tweeted about how "not all opinions are equal" and it revolved around how people are entitled to believe what they want, but that for a belief to be treated with respect it needs to pass same tests of commonsense.

A person may believe that water boils at 30 degrees, but if I put a thermometer in a glass and see no bubbles I'm think I'm allowed to say that "that belief appears to be misplaced".

So I am saddened when I hear the death knell of logic. In holiday season these conversations are harder to avoid for me than at other times and I still make the mistake of chatting - out of politeness or boredom. Sometimes I don't notice that I'm being drawn down the path. A person is armed with a few newspaper articles they just read and a ton of belief. If I'm silly enough to pursue the discussion it invariably ends with "well that's what I believe and I'm entitled to it".

Part of me gets annoyed, but mostly I get sad. If I take the time to actually talk about something, I've convinced myself that I might actually learn something. I take in new information for about four hours a day, through newsradio, newspapers, social and web and I won't pretend to know things I don't. I can be a bigmouth, but I'm not a bullshitter. Sometimes (amazingly rarely) these chats provide me with new information or links to it, that give me a new perspective. That's what I hope for. But mostly I simply get the same opinion, voiced more loudly.

So if I present you with a whole bunch of stuff that doesn't square with your thinking I would hope that you'd at least say "gee, that's a lot of information. I'm still very partial to my initial position but I'll have a look at all that stuff". I'll do you the same courtesy.

But instead, I get "well that's what I believe and I'm entitled to it"

Sure, we get to choose what we read and the web is great for having a strident community to support any belief. Ffs there probably is a website dedicated to the belief that water boils at 30c. But that takes us off onto a whole other rant about what real knowledge is, and I'm already tired of writing. You're probably tired of reading, too.

Finally there are many times a person will strongly believe in something and the belief is supported by well researched, logically constructed argument. Those conversations are invariably more pleasant, because I probably agree.

Technical note: for the smartasses among us, it is possible to boil water at 30c. Reducing pressure also reduced the boiling point of water, that's why mountaineers can't get a really hot cup of tea at altitude. So, to boil water at 30 degrees, put a glass in a Cryovac machine. But I think we can agree that's a bit of a red herring.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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