Things About Which Two Reasonable People Can Disagree

A week or so ago, as the US Federal Government was on the brink of a shutdown, William Howell, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, discussed how the factions in the US government had become so polarized in an editorial for CNN. He noted the following:

The polarization of the two major parties has consequences for a great deal more than just the contents of legislation. It fosters a broader political environment in which compromise invites ridicule, in which pragmatists are presumed to lack conviction, and in which each political faction is convinced not merely that it is right, but that those who disagree with it are stupid, evil or both.

In my line of work, I am often in the position of having to disagree with what someone is saying. The fact is, I’m paid to disagree with people (who are also being paid to disagree with me). There are at least three kinds of disagreements that I am frequently involved in.

The first type of disagreement is what I would call a Factual Disagreement–a disagreement that is a result, most frequently, from differences in the set of facts that were made available to each side of the debate. Although blatant dishonesty does exist, most people in my industry are trying to maintain a reputation of credible work, and thus will not intentionally says things that are patently false–especially when they are verifiable. Thus, most frequently when these sort of statements appear, they are made because of incorrect or incomplete information, or simple misunderstandings that can later be corrected. For example, the dispute may arise because one side has been using outdated market data; once both sides of the dispute use the same data, the problem disappears. Thus, when the rubber hits the road, the facts will surface and everyone can get on the same page.

A second type of disagreement is what I would call an Idiot Disagreement–a disagreement that results primarily from idiocy, sloppy work, laziness, or being a puppet for your client. These are disputes where a claim isn’t so much factually wrong as it is stupid. For example, we economists have a fairly strong belief that, other things equal, if prices fall, quantity demanded will increase. So, if you make the claim that the result of a price increase was a rise in quantity sold, it’s difficult to take you seriously. These kind of disagreements are difficult to handle at times, because spending time and energy rebutting the statement risks lending it credibility that it doesn’t have in the first place, and can also distract you from more substantial issues.

The last type of disagreement, and the type that is the most interesting to me for the purposes of this post, is what I will call an Interpretative Disagreement–a disagreement which arises simply because the facts in evidence do not illuminate a clear path to enlightenment, and two reasonable people can legitimately come to different conclusions based on the same evidence. In my work, most of what I do involves trying to model or estimate the impact of events which did not actually take place–creating a world that doesn’t exist. As such, the models and estimates are always subject to the assumptions, interpretations, and experience of the person building the model. Because each individual brings different experiences and opinions to bear, the natural result is that conclusions will differ–sometimes only by a few degrees, but sometimes by orders of magnitude.

The catch here, of course, is that these are the sort of disagreements that are hardest to recognize during the actual debate. In the heat of the moment, and with our strong vested interests, it’s very easy to categorize everything as a Factual or Idiocy Disagreement, without really giving the opposing viewpoint a fair shake. Only later, after the arguing and pouting is over and everyone has gone their separate ways, do we often realize that there just might have been a little more to the other viewpoint than we thought, or that perhaps our case wasn’t quite as ironclad as it seemed.

During the Sunday afternoon session of General Conference a couple of weeks ago, I thought about some of the disagreements I’ve had with different people over matters of faith and religion. Within the LDS Church, and especially within the bloggernacle, we have different factions who apply different labels to each other (and to themselves), and whose opinions of other groups exhibit varying degrees of charity on a day to day basis: Liberals, Conservatives, Feminists, Orthodox, Orthoprax, Intellectual, True Blue, and so on. My experience has been that the way we write and think of each other and our coreligionists–even our leaders–in the bloggernacle is unfortunate much of the time, because it has the end result of decreasing conversation and dialogue as we flee to communities where our opinions and ideas are most valued and appreciated, and avoid those where we get treated like crazies. Sadly, the more we flee to our places of comfort, the more differing opinions protrude like a sore thumb when they enter our domains, and the easier and more natural it seems to drive them away or ignore them.

As Mormons, we have baggage and hurts and warts which we try to downplay or celebrate, depending on the venue, the time, the participants, and the angle of approach. History, theology, policy, culture–these combine in endless ways to make understanding or determining exactly what it means to be a Latter-day Saint a complicated task at times. As can only be expected, I don’t always reach the same conclusions as my cobloggers, my ward members, or anyone other random LDS person on the street.

I’m having a terrible time trying to tie this all up into some grand lesson–probably because there isn’t one in the first place (I’ve never been the deep thinker at BCC)–but perhaps the point I’m trying to make is clear anyway: How many of our debates and arguments and fights and flamewars over different points of our shared religion are a result of misclassification? Are we guilty of fostering “a broader [religious] environment in which compromise invites ridicule, in which pragmatists are presumed to lack conviction, and in which each [religious] faction is convinced not merely that it is right, but that those who disagree with it are stupid, evil or both?”

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    Word up, Scott. I think you’re describing why many experience ‘bloggernacle burnout’. That said, the time and patience required for true mutual understanding and reasonable compromise is not something many possess, myself included — particularly when engaged in routine activities (responding to blog comments, for example). Hence the idiot disagreement approach tends to carry the day. Thoughts?

  2. What Scott and Steve said.

  3. Scott B. says:

    Steve,
    Yes. I didn’t say as much in the post above, but I would say that many of the ideas are a result of a large degree of burnout on my part–not just blogging, but in general.

  4. While I agree that your points are valid, I tend to disagree that we have any sort of problem in the world of online religious debate/converse. I have followed religious blogging for over a decade now and I am still appreciative of the fact that we simply have it. I am the type that wishes sometimes that our physical communities (ie, wards, branches and stakes), would be more open and willing to debate and converse about various topics. With that said, I am more of a word on paper type. I don’t converse at well face to face so I am am very grateful to be able to come here and read a heated debate, participate on occasion, and learn from it, whether emotions were involved or not. Yes we can get out of hand. Yes we will call each other names that we shouldn’t as human beings. Yes there are negative affects. But let us remember how far we have come. twenty years ago many people didn’t have an outlet for all their different feelings they had about the church they were supposed to completely love and have no problems with. Many people didn’t dare open up discussions about questionable faith or what not because they knew it would bet back to leaders, friends, family and then that question had a face to ridicule.
    I for one am grateful for the arguments, even the emotional, mud slinging ones. When the dust settles I think the general viewership is better off. I am not saying it is worth any casualties, but the wounded on here are far fewer in number and far less wounded than if these discussions happened without the internet.

  5. Scott, an analytical question, if you don’t mind:

    [A]n Idiot Disagreement [is] a disagreement that results primarily from idiocy, sloppy work, laziness, or being a puppet for your client. These are disputes where a claim isn’t so much factually wrong as it is stupid. For example, we economists have a fairly strong belief that, other things equal, if prices fall, quantity demanded will increase. So, if you make the claim that the result of a price increase was a rise in quantity sold, it’s difficult to take you seriously.

    I can appreciate the existence of the thing that you call here an Idiot Disagreement; I can recognize disagreements I have with others where I am certain that the cause of their disagreement with me is idiocy, sloppy work, laziness, or being a puppet. However, note how I just expressed that: “where I am certain.” There’s is not way, without a claim of omniscience, to avoid the subjective judgment which compromises a distinction between a Factual Disagreement (“I think these budget numbers are inaccurate”) and an Idiot Disagreement (“The way you are looking at these numbers is moronic”). That same subjective judgment comes up in your own expression as well: you talk about a dispute where one side is clearly being “stupid,” and yet your example of such is…someone who happens to disagree with the “fairly strong belief” that economists share, a belief that makes it almost impossible for them to take anyone who disagrees about it seriously.

    My point is that I suspect what you call Idiot Disagreements are probably actually Very Deep Factual Disagreements, or perhaps Interpretive Disagreements Involving Matters so Strongly Believed they Appear to be Facts. In fact, I suspect that actually all three of your different disagreements are not separated into clear categories, but rather are along a sliding continuum: on the one end are Facts That Are Agreed to be Facts, and need not interpretation, just correction; one the other end are Beliefs That Are Clearly Beliefs, and thus depend upon interpretative disputes. In between, someone may be convinced that what they’re dealing with are Facts, while someone else may not be; hence, the both think the other is being an Idiot.

    I don’t know what my conclusion is; like you, and like any responsible disputant, I recognize that there are diminishing returns to be gained from arguing with someone about something that I think is Obviously Factual and they don’t, or vice versa. At the same time though, I wonder if being willing to label some disagreement an Idiot Disagreement, and therefore a “distract[ion]…from more substantial issues,” might actually be rather disrespectful, not to mention condescending–an act to assume one’s beliefs must be obvious, when arguably they aren’t.

  6. Russell,
    Thanks for your comment. As a general matter, I agree with what you’re saying, and I was aware of the apparent inconsistencies in my own definitions as I was writing them, and appreciate being taken to task for it only a few comments in.

    I can clarify (hopefully) a couple of things that may help make the definitions make sense, at least from where I’m sitting. The first thing is that I was trying to strain an experience from my workplace to my religion, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. In this particular instance, it’s important to keep in mind that I work in a legal arena (though I’m not a lawyer for those who don’t know me), where “facts” are not necessarily “facts” as we think about them, but rather things which the Court, in it’s unholy and finite wisdom, has determined to be facts. My main problem in the OP is that I picked a bad example–market data is absolutely something that is subject to interpretation. A better example would be (in, say, a patent infringement lawsuit), a list of the products a plaintiff is “accusing” of infringement. Such a list evolves over the course of discovery, but eventually settles down on a set list. Because experts and consultants deliver their opinions at different time periods–sometimes months apart–the list of “accused” products may not be the same, and the resulting opinions on damages, liability, and other outcomes may vary simply because different information was available.

    Second, my example of an Idiocy argument was also a bad one–not because it isn’t the type of argument I was referring to (it is)–but because it’s misleading and too reliant on the particulars of my work to be generalized to religion in a useful way. I should have added, “…and presents no data or evidence or anything else to support it” after the bit about prices and quantities. Regardless, a better way of describing “Idiot” arguments would have been to say that they are, effectively, decoy arguments. Red herrings. ad hominem insults. The sort of argument which, even if I win, I still lose, because I had nothing to gain from winning, and I lost time and money pursuing it.

    At the end of the day, however, like I said at the outset: I largely agree with what you wrote, and knew it was coming from someone eventually.

  7. dallske (4),
    Thanks for your comment. After reading it through a couple of times, I get the sense that you’re reading something from my OP that I didn’t meant to suggest. Specifically, your comment appears to be making the case for debate. That’s fantastic–since I love debate, and I had no intention whatsoever of discouraging it. In fact, my purpose was encourage more debate.

    What I was hoping to discourage is something very different: the act of debating with a mentality of “smart vs. stupid” and “good Mormon vs. bad Mormon” and “disciple of Christ vs. minion of Satan.” See?

  8. Also, dallske–one last thing.

    You mentioned that you’ve been following religious blogging for over a decade. Yet, this is your first comment at BCC. Two things:
    First, what the crap, dude?
    Second, welcome.

  9. Q: Is there a way that we could use these disagreements to draw two parties closer together, rather than further apart?

  10. Scott, love your taxonomy, but I think your title is off: two people can disagree, but it takes three to provoke true outrage. The ultimate cause of all intense and long-lasting disagreement is the fatuity of meet-in-the-middle arbitration.

    Kids may argue, but true rage requires a harried parent to fail her Solomonesque duty to distinguish sight-unseen truth from falsehood and dispense just and swift vindication to the innocent.

    You know where you deserve to end up, but your opponent takes an overly greedy hard line. You respond with a position much more hard-nosed that you really hold. You match generosity with grace. Underlying this is a sense of justice.

    Enter the arbiter. Too lazy to do his job, or too afraid of seeming partisan, the “impartial observer” (read: modern media) picks the center halfway between reasonable and wingnut. The perverse result is to reward the unreasonable with success and punish moderation.

    Under these circumstances, only a saint or a sucker would “agree to disagree”. The quickest way to a brawl on the ice is not overzealous opponents but a ref not calling fouls.

  11. Hey Steve Evans, I think Dan Weston just told you to stop policing comment threads.

  12. Josh B.,
    A: Don’t feel obligated to wait on me–go ahead and suggest something! ;)

  13. Thomas Parkin says:

    I think almost all disagreements,- especially in online conversations, but in meat life, too,- are basically ego related. At some point we take the fatal step of attaching our ideas to our identities. (I am on the left, right, am religious, irreligious, or any other identity.) After this, our sense of self is involved. To let go one’s established identity, and the viewpoints that it predetermines, puts in us an anxiety about a loss of self.

    The necessary thing is to genuinely care more about what is true and best than what strokes one’s sensibility (or anything else). This can’t be faked for long – out the abundance of the heart, the fingers eventually type. Two people who have achieved a degree of this motivation can have a tentative conversation in good faith. It is also wholly necessary in getting anything meaningful in the way of communication from God.

    I recently read this in Bertrand Russell: “All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge alone is operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the character which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to the Self that knowledge is possible without any admission of what seems alien.”

  14. Mommie Dearest says:

    Have any of you ever read Scott Peck’s book “A Different Drum”? It was written in 1987 and carries the subtitle “Community Making and Peace” (and a gag-worthy new-agey supertitle.)

    Once you get past the occasional veneer of annoying new-age rhetoric, there are some practical and well-developed ways of looking at how to get along in a community filled with selfish, squabbling people and their many, varied and conflicting interests. (Present company excepted, of course) He addresses the transcending of differences by appreciating those differences as key, and even celebrating them. He also talks about going beyond “civilized” democracy to including minority needs and interests in the politics of community-building. He analyses how to arrive at consensus without it being necessary to abandon your individual outlooks.

    I’m really finding it hard to distill out the things I read in this book that led me to change some of my old attitudes. Here’s a quote that illustrates my difficulty in trying to write about these ideas: “We are so unfamiliar with genuine community that we have never developed an adequate vocabulary for the politics of this transcendence.” He also found it hard to write about it. Plus it’s very late and my brain is refusing to do language anymore.

    Sometimes I fantasize about sending this book anonymously to the members of my family. And then I watch what’s been going on in Congress in the last couple of weeks and wonder if despair isn’t a realistic attitude after all. We are a very immature and undisciplined community. And by community I include them all–the church, our politics, the bloggernacle–we all love to see our own attitudes reign supreme in the arena, but that isn’t community building. The teachings of the Lord inform this process, and one of the things I like about Peck is that he gives the Savior his due, and recognizes the need for love–the kind of love illuminated by Christ–in the process of creating a community.

    It’s a good read. Kinda post-worthy even. I recommend it.

  15. Scott B,
    “What the crap, dude?”?
    Is that supposed to mean that all surveyors of blogs are supposed to contribute?
    Am I reaping all the benefits without contributing?

    Also, with your first rebuttal to me, I think you are mostly preaching to the choir. From what I have seen, the people that need to hear what you are trying to say either don’t read boring posts like this, or read it with the mentality that they are not the ones who need to change. Childish or ignorant people on here who mud sling the most and often even get kicked off a site for being rude or inappropriate often can’t be talked to in any logical or rational way.
    Other than that, yes, I agree, it is good to note and remember that all of us should continue to read and educate ourselves and remember would COULD have our facts wrong. Arguments that are based on fact are silly.
    I DO think though that 98% of all debate on religious blogs in general have little to do with fact.

  16. “would COULD”
    change to,
    “we COULD”

    Sorry…

  17. It’s seems that the apparently inherent need to create labels and categories is part of the problem stopping civil discourse (liberal, orthodox, feminist, etc.), along with the point that Thomas brought up about attaching ideas to identity. And in the Church, the problem can be compounded by the occasionally subjective nature of truth. While there are certainly concrete and immovable points of doctrine on which the majority will agree, I think many arguments that are really about people’s varied interpretations of scripture get given the guise (whether accurate or inaccurate) of being matters of the spirit versus the letter of the law. I think of my mother and mother-in-law who both espouse the “No caffinated anything” interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, while my husband and I aren’t bothered with the occasional Dr. Pepper so long as we’re adamant about no coffee or tea and generally taking all things in moderation. Personally, I don’t think I’m more or less righteous than our mothers for that decision, but I’ve known people who stand on the platform that the former position is about living the spirit of the law while my approach is condemned as paying lip service to the letter of the law. In that particular case, I think neither person’s practise is right or wrong until we get caught up in the frenzy of mote-finding and beam-ignoring.

    It’s difficult, but perhaps the first step is the separation of idea and identity. That way, we can disagree with distasteful or logically dubious ideas without needing to attack the other person’s character in the process. Though I admit this is far easier said than done.

  18. Peter LLC says:

    the people that need to hear what you are trying to say either don’t read boring posts like this, or read it with the mentality that they are not the ones who need to change.

    Sure, it’s always the other guy.

  19. I fail quite often in this, but I try hard when I talk with someone in person or write a comment on a blog to step back before I hit “submit” (or “Post Comment” here) and consider my statement as if someone else were saying it to me. If I would be upset my the tone of my statement (not the content, just the tone), I try to reword it to make it acceptable to me if directed at me.

    I find when I don’t do that – when I write or speak quickly without careful thought or in the heat of emotion – that I often end up regretting what I’ve said, generally when I see the response it caused.

    All that is to say that I think there is nothing about which two “reasonable people” cannot disagree reasonably – but I also think two reasonable people can disagree disagreeably about anything, IF they aren’t seeing themselves in the other in the moment of discussion.

    Fwiw, within LDS Church-related blogging discussions, I have seen the tendencies described in this post fairly equally from both “sides” of any discussion – with orthodox and heterodox members being equally “idiotic”, to use that term from the post. I’ve done it myself from both “sides” at times. However, when I am expressing a heterodox viewpoint about something, I believe it is even more important for me to slow down and speak carefully – since it is much easier in those situations to feel marginalized and react emotionally.

    One’s opinion on either side of any question tends to have less polarizing effect than the attitude conveyed through the expression of that opinion – and the way I have expressed an opinion often has come around to bite me in the butt when someone misunderstands my meaning because of a misinterpretation of the tone they hear.

    As I said, I’ve erred plenty of times in the Bloggernacle in this regard, but I really do think valuing others’ opinions reagardless of agreement or disagreement and very conscious, careful attention to wording and tone make all the difference – **and that can be VERY difficult if someone is trying to “keep up” in a fast-paced thread.**

  20. Excellent Post Scott. I agree completely.

    When I was interviewed by Peggy Fletcher Stack a few years ago, I said I didn’t think the bloggernaccle would be around for too long. She asked why and I said something like “Well, we’re terribly mean to one another.”

    When I started participating in these forums, I was excited by the conversations we could have with each other. I figured a lot of what we were discussing were interpretive disagreements. It turns out a lot of people talking with me think we are having idiocy disagreements.A good example was just last week at Zelophahad’s Daughters. I ended dialogue there when I realized. Kiskilili didn’t give a crap about what I had to say. I’m not singling her out, and who knows, maybe she is right and I am an idiot on that one. The same thing has happened at Millennial Star, FMH, NCT, T&S and here (occasionally). I think the trick is that even idiocy arguments need to be treated like factual arguments. I think it requires real skill to never make others feel like you think they are idiots. I think Jacob J, J. Stapley, Artemis, and Kevin Barney, and Jeff G are great examples of this.

  21. Chris Gordon says:

    Great post, great thoughts, all. Indiana (#17)’s thoughts reminded me of something a political science professor pointed out back in the day which has really helped me put some of the modern political debate into perspective. Really, a lot of what we’re arguing about and getting so passionate about is really at the margins of our beliefs. There are nations in the world (Libya, Iraq, much of Africa, etc.) who are still arguing, debating, and warring over fundamental questions of what their country and society are going to all be about. We may talk about politics as though it’s that serious of a question, but we’re able to couch those arguments within the same context, arguing the same principles from the Founding, and within the text of the same constitution. That’s a luxury.

    Similarly, and I’d never really thought of it until today, (thank you Indiana) much of what we debate and discuss here is still at the margins of our beliefs. You can even call a debate over the church’s treatment of homosexuality or women an argument at the margins (hear me out) because the argument isn’t whether gender identity matters, is divine, or whether priesthood is important, divinely directed, etc., but what application of those principles comes into play. Contrast that with some of the larger inter-religious debates over the divinity and character of God, His expectations vis-a-vis religious practice, etc., and we’re pretty lucky to have a concrete and shared framework with which to discuss things intelligently or otherwise.

  22. No. 10, Dan Weston — Dan, I agree it takes three to provoke outrage — but I see the third party as the audience of one of the other two. Two people in private can disagree and still be friends — but when there is a third party that one or both want to impress, well, there is where trouble starts.

  23. jj, great point. Wish I’d thought of including it in my post so I’d get the credit for it. Sigh. I’ve been trying to impress Scott B. with my wit and yet not get banninated by Steve for it, and doing both while actually saying something that I truly believe is quite a tightrope to walk — or a plank, I’m never quite sure until after I press “Post Comment”.

  24. Dan,
    I think that your risk of being banninated by anyone here is within an epsilon-ball about zero.

  25. Insult,embarrassment, fear of loss of creditability and desire to be right fuel disagreement it is exacerbated when three or more are involved creating a drama triangle where people take turns consciously or subconsciously playing the roles of persecutor victim and rescuer.

  26. Scott, I’m coming a bit late to this. But I wanted to chime in as liking.

  27. Two thoughts (because more than that causes strain):

    Of course reasonable people can disagree – except with what I’m saying, cuz I’m always right! Hello! Should be obvious by now!

    And Thomas Parkin’s comment is the most astute (yes, I’m randomly throwing in educated words to make myself feel smarter), I think.

  28. Scott B,

    Good ideas, but have you ever noticed that it is always the other guy (or gal) that is promoting the “Idiot Disagreement” with their sloppy work, laziness, ignorance, or just plain idiocy, never us? I suspect that the idiots I disagree with might be just as quick to throw the idiot label back at me. But that’s obviously because they are lazy, sloppy idiots.

    However, I heartily endorse your ending statement that we may be guilty of fostering an environment “in which compromise invites ridicule, in which pragmatists are presumed to lack conviction, and in which each [religious] faction is convinced not merely that it is right, but that those who disagree with it are stupid, evil or both?”

    I’m a great fan of pragmatism, but conviction seems to rule the day when the perception is that our eternal salvation (or their perception of ours) is at risk. Nothing like a high risk factor to harden the convictions.

  29. kevinf,

    Good ideas, but have you ever noticed that it is always the other guy (or gal) that is promoting the “Idiot Disagreement” with their sloppy work, laziness, ignorance, or just plain idiocy, never us? I suspect that the idiots I disagree with might be just as quick to throw the idiot label back at me. But that’s obviously because they are lazy, sloppy idiots.

    Sure–that’s kind of my point: the way we treat and think about others in religious debates is hypocritical and destructive in many instances, and the polarization comes from the fact that both sides of each debate do the exact same thing.

  30. To clarify 29, maybe the thing that is bothering me here–given that “we all are guilty” isn’t really an earth-shattering idea–is rooted a little bit in something that Steve noted in the first comment on this post: “the time and patience required for true mutual understanding and reasonable compromise is not something many possess … particularly when engaged in routine activities.”
    What bothers me about this reality is that something we could all (more or less) agree on is that what we are debating–religion–is very important, and yet we do it as a matter of routine and without much mental exertion at times. At least I do, anyway. And my willingness to debate really important things without attaching much value to what others think kind of bothers me.

  31. I quite liked this post as well.

    Don’t forget that some people simply like a good brawl. They like to take offense, show some bluster, and maybe swing a bar stool or two. They don’t really mean anything by it — it’s just an entertaining way to defend their point of view. A little blood is to be expected in a brawl, and they don’t see it as a big deal. But those they’re engaging don’t necessarily see the entertainment value.

    This is especially true when people leave their ideologically comfortable enclaves to go slumming in on somebody else’s blog.

  32. Re: Ray (19)

    I wonder what would happen to the general tone of comments if “Post Comment” was changed to “Are you sure you want to say that?”
    Might be a fun experiment.

  33. kevinf,
    I need to learn to stop submitting comments until I’m sure I’ve covered everything!
    I’m a great fan of pragmatism, but conviction seems to rule the day when the perception is that our eternal salvation (or their perception of ours) is at risk. Nothing like a high risk factor to harden the convictions.

    This gets to what I’m saying in (30) above: The high risk factor enters into our hardened convictions, and appropriately so–sort of. But the high risk applies to both sides: Isn’t our own risk of being wrong just as eternally dangerous as our opponent’s risk of being wrong? Or, put another way, with so very much at risk, shouldn’t we take extra caution and guard against “them” being wrong and “us” being wrong with equal fervor?

  34. Brilliant post. I loved it. Well done.

  35. Martin,

    Don’t forget that some people simply like a good brawl…This is especially true when people leave their ideologically comfortable enclaves to go slumming in on somebody else’s blog.

    You talking about yourself there, Martin? :p

  36. Hey… I’m not slumming!

  37. My experience has been that the way we write and think of each other and our coreligionists–even our leaders–in the bloggernacle is unfortunate much of the time, because it has the end result of decreasing conversation and dialogue as we flee to communities where our opinions and ideas are most valued and appreciated, and avoid those where we get treated like crazies.

    I was going to say something similar to Martin (31) and actually go further. I think most people in the bloggernacle are here because they want to discuss(argue) and often are attracted to sites (though sometimes only temporarily) that reflect consistently opposing viewpoints. Else, how does one explain Jettboy stopping by BCC so often?
    This also explains why I like to stop by FPR from time to time. The general tone there tends to be way more liberal than my outlook, but discussions are more worthwhile if they are with people you disagree with.

    I think in many venues you’re right, we retreat to our comfort zones surrounded by similar viewpoints. And while I think there is some of this in the bloggernacle, I think overall there is enough thrust that people often leave their comfort areas. In other words, while I think there are many unfortunate consequences of the heated non-communicative argument that often takes place in the bloggernacle; I’m not sure that “decreasing conversation and dialogue as we flee” is one of them. Although if what you meant to say was a ‘decrease in the quality of conversation and dialogue’, I would likely agree.

  38. My brother sent me these in response to the post:

    “A robust result is that honest truth-seeking agents with common priors should not knowingly disagree”

    and

    Signs that your opinions function more to signal loyalty and ability than to estimate truth: “You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.”

  39. I commented the following on a thread at W&T a little while ago. I’m just going to re-post verbatim, since I think for once I got it right when I said this:

    Once, after a particularly long argument with a friend who is, admittedly, smarter than I am, I uttered the words “Sorry man, I just hate being wrong.”
    To which he replied “No you don’t. You hate being proved wrong. If you hated being wrong you would listen to the other side of the argument, engage in discussion, and learn.”

    Those words have resonated with me frequently, even ten years later. When we so vehemently know that our side is right and the other side is wrong, then we spend all our time talking and none listening. However when we seek truth and greater understanding, we listen, we consider, and we engage in the dialectic.

    The problem with being Mormon is that we have a different idea of (and a lot of baggage with) the phrase “I know . . . “. We build line upon line, precept upon precept over foundations of knowing that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, etc. We are often afraid that if the other side of the argument finds a crack in our logic, that the whole facade of what we “know” will come crumbling down. So we fight harder. This becomes especially ironic when the “other side” is also Mormon.

  40. Actually, what I said comes off far more trite without an illustration. Not too long ago, I wandered over to FMH and they had a nice thread going on the evils of capitalism. I happened to think much of what was said was ridiculous, so I couldn’t help but chime in. I had no delusions I’d change anybody’s opinion or that any real conversation would result, so I didn’t necessarily make my points tactfully. So why the heck did I jump in? So yeah, I guess I was talking about myself.

    I will point out that there are plenty who enjoy a good brawl over there as well (especially when they’ve got numbers), but I think there may have been others who didn’t appreciate it.

  41. Scott,

    re “shouldn’t we take extra caution and guard against “them” being wrong and “us” being wrong with equal fervor?”

    Exactly. Somehow, the idea of competition gets into the argument, and winning often becomes more important than the substance. I really liked the Bertrand Russell quote that Thomas Parkin used, about enlarging ourselves via knowledge, but only when our self image is open to other possibilities, and not dominated by our preconceived paradigms. Easy to talk about, hard to actually practice. It’s kind of core to our understanding of the gospel and progression.

    Now if only my idiot brother in law could see that….

  42. B.Russ (39),
    It’s all cool. We are happy to receive W&T’s sloppy seconds.

  43. RE: # 41, actually I have no idiot brother in laws, just two or three that I occasionally have Scott’s “Interpretive Disagreements”. All of them, however, have at least one idiot brother in law in common.

  44. Loved #10. Too true, Dan.

    I often tell my friends that without privacy there is no community. But online discussion and debate go to the extreme of privacy by removing the body entirely from the conversation. Without our bodies present, which are temples of God, we often fail to identify and/or recognize the divinity present in individuals from their discussion posts.

    This is, of course, endemic of the larger problem of physical communities generally not recognizing the divinity of people in general, whether their bodies are present or not. But with absolute removal of the body, the internet is relegated to “wild west” status where Clint Eastwoods and John Waynes brandish their intellects and language skill to “gun down” opposing ideologues.

    Be it a useful feedback loop for ideas or a function of people not having the spine to say these things in real life to real people, online forums are basically a way for us to re-enact the war (of words) from the pre-existence.

  45. I think that one of the problems (for me, at least) is that simply chiming in just to say “I agree with you” often seems trite. So I think that most commenters only comment when there is something they find to disagree with, or want to take in a different direction. Thus, while two people in the bloggerncle might agree on most things, they often only know each other, or at least interact with one another, through their disagreements. And I think that can lead to a skewed view of who the people are that we’re interacting with.

  46. Jimbob, # 45, I agree with you!

  47. Scott, there is a supporting signal processing analog to the economic theory in your brother’s first link. Consider this key conclusion from the link:

    “typical disagreements are best explained by postulating that people have self-favoring priors, even though they disapprove of such priors, and that self-deception usually prevents them from seeing this fact.”

    When assessing the detectability of a signal (“truth”) in a measurement (“assertion”) which contains noise (“random deviations from the truth”), without reference to an ideal truth, we typically do two things:

    1) Take a maximum likelihood of signal strength approach to the signal: assume the assertion is true and assess how far it is from the expected typical untruth (“how plausible it is”). E.g. astrology is probably fake because it sounds like some many other falsehoods. A cult is probably misguided because there are so many cults. This estimator is biased if the signal distribution is not compact, e.g. the existence of God, and it completely useless if there is a finite probability of an omni-whatever god.

    2) Estimate the noise by our own prior experience. This suffers from a subtle but important problem known as self-whitening of noise. If we assume a normal distribution of lies, from which we are discerning the truth, and then go on to calibrate our characterization of lies from previously-discovered lies, we denormalize the distribution of lies. It gets flatter at the low end but has larger tails at the extremes. We detect small lies better, but at the missing the big lies more often. Specifically. the standard second-order techniques find that the signal-to-noise ratio goes up (the measurement seems more plausible the farther it is from our expectation of falsehood) but the true detectability goes down: our metric is deluding us.

    The prognosis is not good: corrective techniques are no less noisy than the dishonesty. In linear theory technobabble, a not-quite-matched filter is not made closer to a matched filter by postprocessing the convolution: we are looking into the mirror at a truth of our own making.

  48. Thomas Parkin says:

    “simply chiming in just to say “I agree with you” often seems trite.”

    In the early days of the Internet, the “me,too” post was considered bad form. People paid for bandwidth, so forcing them to pay for random spew was thought out of the way. That’s all long gone, though. The “me, too” post is now the biggest reason the internet exists, much like high school.

  49. Um, me too?

    Nice post, Scott, and enjoyable discussion.

    Dan, I need pictures for that last post. What you’re saying sounds terribly disheartening–how does one find the truth when one is in possession of an imperfect truth filter?

  50. Dan (47),
    I need to think a little bit more on that before responding. Unfortunately, it’s Friday afternoon, and I just can’t get my head around it at the moment.

    If the conversation is still going when I get time, I’ll reply; otherwise, I’ll email you directly.

  51. I don’t have anything special to add other than to say I enjoyed the post.

    Also, I’ve recently begun to listen to the BCC Zeitcasts, which I really enjoy. Speaking of being open-minded, I have to say it’s making me question my view of economists and lawyers (for the better). However, I’m afraid this might end up backfiring on me in the long run. You know, like a deer that learns to trust humans…We’ll see

  52. Kristine, how does one find the truth? Pontius Pilate was staring right at it and could not see it. Who am I to presume to be more insightful?

    I would summarize my previous comment with the admonition to beware the Black Swan. “Common sense” is uncommonly wise in small, frequent matters and goes terribly wrong in infrequent but important ones.

  53. Great post, Scott. And I’m with Thomas Parkin…+1s are important

  54. Matthew Chapman says:

    How do we respond when debating an individual who has no regard for truth? Who simply makes up “evidence” to support their claim, because the claim is so inherently “righteous”?

    If someone asserts that Joseph Smith was “entirely destitute of moral character, and addicted to vicious habits”, are we justified in making a counter-assertion that he was a perfect man, incapable of error or fault, who never made a sin or misjudgment from his youth?

    “It was not intended to be a factual statement.” – Jon Kyl

    “We publish some misinformation by columnists; all opinion journals do.” – Joseph Farah (WorldNet Daily)

    “Prevarication in the defense of ideology is no vice; honesty in the evaluation of criticism is no virtue.” – Albert Schweitzer

  55. Sometimes we like to be surrounded by those who think like we do-and truth is sacrificed for the sake of moral support. Sometimes we want to be the lone victim out, the last one standing for truth, justice and our opinion. sometimes our past colors so strongly how we see facts, it’s difficult to understand another perspective.

    It does help to understand your own bias. Or at least to admit you have one.

    I onder how Nephi, Teancum, Alma and amulek would argue on capital punishment.

  56. I wonder sigh

  57. Liking the new-to-me idea of the black swan which Dan links to above.

    Thinking that common priors, like geometric planes, don’t exist, but you’ll get something close enough to them when like-minded people get together.

    I’d sure like to learn how to be the Solomonic judge whose actions allow 100 comment threads of reasonable people to discuss. I like that whole Proverbs 27:17 thing about how iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Sharpening maybe being a good thing, rather than being the dull knife in the drawer

  58. Once we’ve labeled someone in politics a Muslim, Socialist, Nazi it’s hard to go back and try and understand what they’re doing and why. It’s the same problem in the bloggernacle. Once we’ve labeled someone as a ultra-liberal Mormon or hardcore conservative Mormon, it becomes more difficult to listen to what they’re saying without immediately thinking it can’t apply to us.

    Sometimes I wish I could read comments without seeing the name of the person next to them to avoid this and just get the meat of the comment.

  59. Jeremy,
    Your last sentence captures something that I think many of us feel from time to time. Some time ago, Brad Kramer wrote a post in which the comments spiraled into a debate about how everyone knew (or didn’t know) what the punchline was going to be simply because they saw it was written by Brad. There are obviously biases that creep into us on many levels–personal ones where we know the commenter personally, gender-based (men commenting on feminism, etc…), religious participation (exmos commenting on actives’ bizness, etc..)–and I’m sure that the conversation threads would be somewhat different if we everyone commented as “anon.” However, in cutting out the bad, you’d also cut out much of the understanding that comes from familiarity, so who knows what the net result would be.

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