Saturday, 10 January 2015

One Of The Big Ironies Of Blog Writing

Avid readers of The Philosophical Muser blog may recall that a while ago I (we?) celebrated 100 blog posts. Well, a few blog posts ago we reached 200 (we're now on 220), so I thought I'd write a brief piece about writing, because the relationship between the writer and the reader is an interesting one, often fraught with tension. I'll explain.

Confirmation bias is a phenomenon that affects many people* - it's the habit of assessing things in ways that already conform to your views. For example, people who believe in God will often see patterns in nature that conform to a Divinely created world. People who don't believe in God will not. Socialists will often see capitalism predominantly as a nasty uncaring system that fosters exploitation and unfair inequality, whereas many pro-market capitalists will fail to see the problems for which capitalism has no solution.

Consequently, once a person holds a firm view on something - be it religion, politics, economics, ethics, or myriad other topics – you’ll find it’s hard to get them to change their mind and see the situation differently, even if what they believe is absurd, nonsensical or contrary to known facts. Given the foregoing, those who write publicly for human consumption will have a readership divided roughly into three groups.

The first group, and by far the smallest, will be those with no heavy predispositions or strong cognitive biases. People in this group may consider your thoughts with quite a balanced and open mind, and may in many cases be persuaded by good reasoning and empirical substantiation.

The other two groups, making the huge majority, will be people who are going to be for you or against you.

The second group will be people that are generally for you. People in this group will share your general ethos, and they will mostly concur with the majority of your conclusions. They will probably begin your article by already being primed to agree, so may often be less discerning when it comes to spotting faults with your reasoning.

The third group will be people that are opposed to your general ethos, and they will mostly disagree with your conclusions. They will probably begin your article by already being primed to oppose, and may often be less discerning when it comes to identifying strengths in your reasoning and the good points you make.

We see this played out all the time with various public figures. For example, affiliates of Ken Ham will read his blog and look for all the ways that a creationist worldview is the correct one. Opponents of Melanie Philips will read her articles and look for all the ways that liberal, socially conservative views are the incorrect ones.

Given the foregoing, it must be said that in all likelihood the writer of articles, columns, essays and blogs quite often doesn’t have much of a positive impact on his or her readers, particularly when the subject matter is politics or religion. It’s probably going to be the case that your most avid readers are people who share your views and like what you have to say, with those who are generally opposed being the most predisposed to disagreement and rejection.

As a consequence, then, with regard to the writers that can edify and enlighten, the people who most need those writers are the ones least likely to regularly read them, and the ones who need them least will be more likely to be regular followers.

Of course, there are many exceptions to that – but it’s a pattern that clearly occurs quite regularly. Just as Shannon's information theory model observed how a message's flow can break down from source to destination, we too observe how, in public discourse, the general language and interactions of protagonists so often breaks down in communication. Take the economic propositions about welfare or the ecological debates about climate change. In either of those debates, both sides are probably not too dissimilar in their aims; they just disagree on how to achieve those aims. What causes much of the irreconcilability is often the cultural and social backdrop that underpins people’s beliefs and views.  Views and beliefs are more tribal than people care to admit.

The economic left tend to see political problems as social problems based on class differentials and as conflicts between oppressors (those successful in business) and the oppressed (the less successful and the unemployed). The economic right tend to see those problems in relation to the extent to which liberty, freedom and open trade are being hamstrung. Whenever there is a debate, you can be pretty confident that one party or the other is wrong, and usually easily shown to be so – therefore, that disagreements are so prevalent is good evidence that they are based on emotional and intellectual skews rather than genuine rational divergence.

It is often thought that the less informed a person is the more close-minded they are. I won’t deny that that is sometimes the case. Take young earth creationism (YEC). Young earth creationists' knowledge of biology, palaeontology and geology is usually very meagre – but they assent to YEC through tribal pressure and the need to proclaim piety and self-righteousness, so the epistemological side is rarely addressed with honest rigour.

However, despite examples like YEC, it isn’t always the case that the less informed a person is the more close-minded they are - sometimes proficient knowledge of a subject is what makes someone closed-minded. Quite often, people have a lot of knowledge of both sides of the argument, and that informs them more strongly of which side they are on and which views they have. For example, the more informed I became about biology, palaeontology and geology, the more close-minded I became to YEC. This plays out elsewhere too. The more informed I became about astronomy, the more close-minded I became to astrology; and the more informed I became about economics, the more close minded I became to socialism. Thus the upshot is, you’re going to find a lot of closed-mindedness in the world. Those who know lots about a subject will be close-minded to the counterfactuals that sit in opposition, and those who know little but are heavily emotionally and intellectually biased will be close-minded to views that upset their predispositions.

All that being the case, it seems that the blog writers worth reading (which is, itself, a view that widely diverges people) have a big job on their hands. They have to keep their supporters entertained and stimulated, while at the same time trying to keep their opponents interested, and gently persuade them of a better way to view situations. They have to be charismatic enough to engage with open and closed minds; and they have to conduct themselves with the knowledge that, in all likelihood, readers who most need them probably read and engage with them the least. Perhaps that's one of the big ironies of blog-writing - those that can benefit most are the same people that are predisposed to benefit least - presuming, of course, that you have something to say from which they can benefit.

* Of course, confirmation bias is just one of many human biases people have. Psychological studies over the past half century have given us compelling evidence that there are dozens of human biases that skew our thinking, and that human beings are not as rational as they like to think.