Oppositional Literature: The Key Tool For Achieving True Intellectual Honesty

[At ~1600 words, this post is on the long side. Just a friendly warning.]

An important philosophy I hold here at Casual Kitchen is to evaluate as many sides of an issue as I can, with as much balance and intellectual honesty as I can muster. I'm not always successful, obviously, but I try to do my best. And in today's post I want to share with readers the key technique I use to raise my level of intellectual honesty:

Whenever I read a book that advocates a position on any issue, I make sure the next book I read advocates an alternative and oppositional viewpoint.

Basically, I seek out the opposing viewpoint, and I do so right away. (The "right away" part is important--we'll see why in a few minutes.)

A recent example is when I read Michele Simon's book Appetite for Profit, followed by Jayson Lusk's book The Food Police. I deliberately read one right after the other. Michele Simon is what I'd call a food liberal: she believes the food industry feeds us unhealthy food, is running amok, and it needs to be reined in by better government policy. Jayson Lusk is what I'd call a food libertarian: He prefers price- and market-based solutions for food-related problems, and he strongly believes consumers have the right to choose their food--even if it means choosing exactly the same unhealthy foods Michele Simon thinks shouldn't even be sold.

Clearly, it'd be a lot easier to just read one book rather than both. And, understandably, most readers would likely choose whichever book resonates with them the most.

Which is just another way of saying we choose the books we already agree with.

The next part of the equation has to do with how our brains function. Our minds are intuitive, pattern-seeking, and they very much dislike doubt and uncertainty. That's why our minds rapidly form strong and conclusive opinions, and they do so based on surprisingly little information. As Daniel Kahneman says in his brilliant book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the human mind is "a machine for jumping to conclusions."

So, even though it's impossible to have a fully informed opinion on this particular subject, guess what? By reading just one of these two books, you not only formed an opinion, you reinforced it too! We all like to think we're not like this by the way. But, ironically, our instinctive (and often defensive) belief that we're faaaar too open-minded to rapidly form opinions from insufficient information simply completes the circle. Why? Because we all form opinions before we should, and our failure to realize we do so makes us fail to correct for it.

Next, confirmation bias sets in: we tend to ignore or filter out information that disagrees with our opinion, selecting instead for confirmatory information--of our existing opinion, which we formed too early in the first place.

It gets worse. Since both books are polemical (I use the word in the non-pejorative sense) and highly persuasive, and since all of us are highly susceptible to confirmation bias, the book you choose, whichever one, will likely encourage you to form mental straw men* on the opposite side of the debate: Michele Simon is a big-government fascist trying to take away our Pop-Tarts! No! Jayson Lusk is a pro-industry wingnut who hates the poor!

Hmmm. But if instead you chose both books and considered them together, you'd discover something else: that Michele Simon is a basically good person trying to help people eat better, even if you might not agree with her top-down policy-driven ideas. Likewise, that Jayson Lusk is also a decent guy who's trying to help people too, even if you might beg to differ with the nature of his solutions.

Read one book, and we end up reinforcing a not-fully-formed opinion. But read two oppositional books, and all of a sudden our brains start backing down. The debate, not to mention our overconfidence in our opinions, just became a lot more humble. And a lot less polarizing.

The central idea here is to make sure we seek out heterodox and intellectually opposing views in every subject domain. Always, always, always seek out the contra-view. (Or contra-views! Not every debate has just two sides.)

I mentioned above that I seek oppositional viewpoints "right away." What's so important about doing so right away?

It all has to do with the incredible rapidity with which our minds seek patterns, leap to conclusions and form opinions. As we've already seen, we tend to form our opinions quickly, before we have enough information, and long before we should.

This process begins happening the minute you start book one. Thus the sooner you read something oppositional, the better you'll counteract the pattern seeking, confirmation bias-inducing, straw man-forming things our brains can't help but do. These invisible killers of intellectual honesty work fast, which is why time is of the essence. We want to embrace the oppositional view(s) before our opinions begin to form themselves, and long before our opinions begin to groove themselves. This makes us far less likely to be dupes for whichever debate position happens to hit our minds first.

Let's push these ideas even further. If you think through all the ramifications of how we humans form opinions, you arrive at some rather unsavory implications. Here's a particularly disturbing one: if we form opinions sooner than we should, and then groove them with confirmation bias and all the other factors above, then all of our opinions--even our most entrenched and most strongly felt opinions--are arbitrary, even random. They're formed by luck! Everything depended on the first few pieces of information we gathered: our pattern-seeking, doubt-evading, ego-defending minds did all the rest behind our backs.

A quick sidebar: There's a really good chance that, right now, your ego is frantically trying to tell you that none of this is true for you. That you aren't like this. That your opinions are carefully thought out, none of them is "wrong" and you're too smart and waaaay too open-minded to fall for something as obvious as confirmation bias or the straw man fallacy. Please consider the idea that your ego is very skillfully lying to you. We all think we don't do these things. But we all do.

One last thought: I’m not recommending this knowledge gathering strategy because I think I'm some kind of all-knowing genius. Far from it. I just happened to spend my career picking stocks: a domain where there were, at all times, multiple and equally valid opposing perspectives, and a domain where I got a lot of practice being wrong--sometimes really wrong--especially when I failed to pay close enough attention to those alternative perspectives.

The thing about stocks, the thing that really bakes your noodle about them, is that there's always a buyer for every seller. There has to be. If you've decided that stock XYZ is the one to own, that it's a great stock that's gonna go higher, then what's the guy on the other side of the trade thinking? If the stock you're buying is so incredibly awesome, how come he's so happy to sell it to you?

Despite this central and counterintuitive truth about investing, Wall Street is still filled with people convinced they're right about everything. That other guy is just dead wrong. And a jerk!

The way I describe it sounds kind of like our political environment, doesn't it? Sadly, this is how it is with debates in most domains where we have strong, ego-identified opinions. Thus the simple act of open-mindedly contemplating the oppositional view is rare, far rarer than you'd think. All the more reason we as individuals should hold ourselves to a higher intellectual standard than, say, Congress. Or Wall Street.

So, did you just read an adulatory biography about an important historical figure? Make sure your next book is an equally convincing critical biography of the same person. Did you just read a book on how FDR saved us from the Great Depression? Read Amity Schlaes' book The Forgotten Man next for a compelling oppositional view.

More examples: Have you been reading about global warming and you consider it an important threat to our planet? Then you have the intellectual obligation to also read, for example, Bjorn Lomberg's The Skeptical Environmentalist to fully understand the key contra-arguments. These are just a few basic examples. I'll leave it to you to do the same exercise in whatever domains are important to you.

If you're reading something that echoes your opinions, you're not learning. You're just digging deeper ruts for your opinions. Don't settle for echoing your own views. Seek the more intellectually honest approach of earnestly and habitually challenging them. We're human beings: our minds are built on biases, cognitive foibles and mental blind spots. The least we can do is to stop pretending we don't have them.

Related Posts:
Four Incredibly Useful Books on Fallacy and Cognitive Bias
The Illusion of Control and How It's Used Against You
Consumers: Pay For Your Own Brainwashing! (Or Don't)
Tips vs Strategy
Money Sundays: How To Get Balanced, Consistently Useful Expert Advice

Postscript: I don't recommend trying this out for the very first time with political topics, or with any domain where you have strong emotional attachment to your opinions. If you're like most people, you're already 100% convinced your political views are perfectly correct. In other words, an oppositional book cannot never be "equally convincing" because you're already convinced! Instead, begin your oppositional reading in domains where you don't have so much ego attachment to your opinions. After regular practice reading and absorbing oppositional literature, and seeing how much sense there is to other, different perspectives, you'll begin to hold all your views, including your political views, with more humility than you ever imagined.

* A straw man argument is a logic fallacy based on misrepresentation or exaggeration of an opponent’s argument. It's a highly effective--if unethical--persuasive technique used constantly in the political domain. Note also that in order to work, straw man arguments require an audience unfamiliar with the opposing argument (or even better: an audience that thinks it's more informed about the opposing argument than it really is). But if you already honestly and open-mindedly understand the opposing argument, you'll be utterly resistant to this rhetorical tactic. Those straw men dry up and blow away.

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Anonymous said...

I think this is great!
I read what "the other side" has to say because you need to know what you enemy is thinking/planning!

chacha1 said...

Great essay. Here's another one in a similar philosophical vein.


Lauren said...

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.