Overcoming Selective Rationality

Note: This is the sixth installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.

The problem of pseudoskepticism is not just a problem other people have. Most people, including the author and most readers of the article, are more or less selectively rational. The symptoms may seem similar to that of pseudoskepticism; aversion to changing your mind when you need the most, reduced ability to perceive and understand arguments that you disagree with and dichotomous thinking. It is probably very hard to be completely rational in every area, which is made even harder by the sophistication effect that was discussed previously: a person who is well-read and intellectual is better at rationalizing beliefs he or she arrived at by irrational means.

Are there ways to overcome selective rationality or avoid becoming a pseudoskeptic? Here are some suggestions.

1. Divorce personal identity from beliefs

When you read or hear criticisms of your position, do not interpret them as a personal attack against your identity. You are not your beliefs. Beliefs are just inhabitants of your mind. If it helps, do not think of the situation as you being wrong, but that your safeguard against irrational beliefs and notions temporarily malfunctioned and let erroneous beliefs through without enough critical evaluation. This means that reasoned critics are actually helping you improve this shield, rather than denigrating your personal identity.

2. Apply symmetric skepticism.

It is really easy to apply a much stricter skepticism and therefore a higher burden of evidence for positions that you reject than the ones you accept in a similar way to the fact that it is easier to notice evidence for positions you accept and forget evidence that oppose it. Try to deeply understand the arguments of your opponents. Not just a cursory overview, but detailed descriptions of what they think their arguments amount to. Do not do like many creationists do when they misunderstand evolutionary arguments and present them as weaker than they are in actuality.

3. Make the opposing argument better, then show how it is mistaken

Scale the hierarchy of disagreement, and aim for the top. The summit is where you not only have a deep and profound understanding of your opponents argument and presented evidence, but actually help them to make the best possible case for their position. This way, when you refute it, you have refuted the strongest possible case available to you. This also makes you appear more humble, since it is an application of the principle of charity.

4. Never think you are immune to cognitive biases and distortions.

Yes, you know dozens and dozens of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, but this knowledge does not guarantee that you will be immune to them. In fact, according to the sophistication effect, knowing about biases can hurt people, as it makes them better at rationalizing positions they have come to for irrational reasons. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman stated: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”. You are only human, and therefore, you are prone to the same cognitive biases as the rest of us.

5. Accept possibility, but evaluate reasonableness

As Dawkins and Randi has explained countless times, there is, of course, as difference between having an open mind and having a whole in your skull from which your brain leaks out. Having an open mind means that you accept the possibility that you are wrong, but also that you evaluate the reasonableness of counterarguments.

6. Take the Outsider Test

John Loftus introduced the Outsider Test specifically for religious faith, but it works for other beliefs as well: test the position you hold as if you where an outsider. This is related to point number two in that it requires you to point the same level of skepticism against your own position as you do towards others. If you had the option of joining this enterprise today, would you? Or would you have strong reservations?

7. Know your requirements

Decide what evidence would falsify your position and convince you that you where wrong. Otherwise, you risk falling into a putrid swamp of various post hoc rationalizations trying to explain away counterarguments.

These are just some basic tips on how to overcome or avoid falling into pseudoskepticism and I am confident there are many more that are more effective. Any suggestions?

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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